ROMANIAN WOMEN ’PICKED’ FOR THE STRAWBERRY HARVEST IN SPAIN : ANOTHER CHAIN IN EUROPE’S AGRO-INDUSTRY
On the 25th and 26th November, 1700 women traveled from all over Romania to the town of Slatina in the south-western plains of the country, in the hope of returning home with a three-month contract to pick strawberries in Spain this coming February. The company, Surexport from Huelva, in partnership with EURES  and ANOFM, the Romanian national agency for employment, were organizing a national ‘selection’ in Slatina. A short interview for which candidates waited for hours in the bitter cold, before making a brief twirl in front of a panel, giving the employer a chance to ‘pick’ the 400 most appropriate workers.
Under the hats and coats of the crowd it was mostly women that were gathered, ranging from their late teens to their forties. Although not stated explicitly , the Spanish company employs only women. The unofficial reason given is that they are more careful pickers, but is it not rather the fact that many women are mothers and wives, and will accept dismal working conditions in order to return home with money to feed and support their households ?
A group of women waiting in the queue, who had previously worked in Spain harvesting strawberries, described the working conditions they had experienced : extra hours worked unpaid, insulting and racist behaviour from the bosses and frequent demands that the girls prostitute themselves if they want to keep their job, not to mention the health issues related to working in an environment polluted not only by the pesticides and other ‘cides’ used in agricultural industry, but also the fumes from the large chemical plants that are numerous in the region. One woman explained : “It’s very hot and sometimes you work extra hours. But people are pleased all the same because they earn money. Some people might ask why you’re leaving your family and country, it’s for money isn’t it ?
Several hundred women arrived in Slatina the evening before the recruitment selection, waiting outside in the perishing cold until morning. The EURES organisers explained the huge crowds outside were due to the women not respecting the specific hour written on their invitation , preferring to arrive early in case the interviews would run on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. However, the lack of transport connections and the long distance separating their homes from the town of Slatina forced some women to arrive the evening before the date of their interview. A woman from the town of Ploiesti had spent the night in Bucarest train station, so she could catch the first train to Slatina in the morning. I met another woman, from Vatra Dornei, a mountain town in the north-eastern tip of Romania, who, due to train timetables, was obliged to arrive at 4pm to make it for her interview the following morning. She explained why she had taken the risk, traveling so far and paying the cross-country train fare, for a small chance of being recruited to work in Spain :
“I worked for 20 years [in the dairy industry] and now they laid people off. I was among them. So I went to the national employment agency. I have a difficult situation because I have a loan that I have to pay back… I have a child, a minor, and I am divorced, so I have to support him by myself. In January, the employment benefit will finish and I will not have any income. I am desperate because I don’t have any possibilities. I came here because this is one of the options I had.”
The effects of the financial crisis, with high unemployment levels and low wages were often given as motives for seeking work abroad, whether in agriculture, in the construction industry or in social care. “Here in Romania the wages are very low. The money isn’t enough to support your family and people are forced to go abroad for work.” Most often these work opportunities are found through friends and relatives already abroad, but also via job agencies or through the national employment agency, as was the case with Surexport’s recruitment selection.
Several women I met work in the textile industry, earning 150 Euros a month. Many others come from rural areas where they have land, but this work does not provide them with an income. “We have land, vineyards, and a vegetable garden… We have everything but we don’t have any income. If we had money, we could plough the land and we could weed and hoe the corn… Everything we produce is for our own consumption.” Another woman explained that with only 2 hectares of land, 4 cows and 2 pigs, she can’t make money to sustain her family. There are few possibilities of selling her produce, competition from imported goods in supermarkets being high. She related how many people have one or two hectares of land, but none of the equipment needed to farm it. The subsidies available, for example from the Common Agricultural policy, only benefit big-scale farmers. 
I felt the women applying for the harvesting work in Huelva did so with the knowledge they would be exploited, but that it was more lucrative to accept these conditions, work in Spain for three months and return home with much higher earnings that a year’s work in a factory in Romania. “We have a family business, but it doesn’t work. We’re bankrupt ! That’s why I want to go. What can you do ? I have a family and kids to take care of… I have to tell you honestly that abroad it’s very hard work, and we are treated like slaves.” In this context, the voice of unions like the S.O.C. in Andalucia or the Confédération Paysanne in France encouraging migrant workers to fight and demand their rights, are distant calls.  Given the precarious financial and economic situation in which they are constrained, people are reticent to take the risk to claim their rights, or perhaps don’t believe in their potential power.
Another chain in Europe’s agro-industry is thus welded : from the EURES manager, who claims that the company Surexport will continue to recruit workers regardless, and decides to accept their demands, to the Romanian women, willing not to be paid extra-hours and face sexual harassment from their employers in order to bring home much needed wages, as well the British consumer, who’s heard stories about where his winter strawberries come from, but doesn’t have time to think about it.  And so the exploitation involved in the strawberry harvest continues unhindered…
 EURES is the “European job mobility portal”, a network set up by the European Commission to manage and coordinate labour mobility.
 The job offer states that accommodation is only available for women, and the EURES manager explained that, at local employment agencies where the applications were compiled, men were discouraged to go to the selection though they could not be stopped if they wished to. Restricting the job offer to women only is illegal as it would be considered discrimination.
 The candidates had filled an application form in their local recruitment agencies several months before, and had received an invitation to attend the national selection.
 S.O.C. (Union of Agricultural workers), la Confédération Paysanne (Peasant Union) and other European unions NGOs have a long running campaign on the rights of seasonal migrant workers, see : http://www.confederationpaysanne.fr…