Spain's immigrant farm workers go hungry in battle over basic rights

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The Independent Online

The Spanish town of Almeria, where estates of plastic greenhouses have made the desert bloom into the vegetable garden of Europe, is on the brink of social upheaval comparable to the race conflicts that shook nearby El Ejido last February.

The Spanish town of Almeria, where estates of plastic greenhouses have made the desert bloom into the vegetable garden of Europe, is on the brink of social upheaval comparable to the race conflicts that shook nearby El Ejido last February.

Dozens of illegal immigrants who pick the tomatoes and cucumbers, peppers and auber- gines, went on hunger strike this week in a local church, demanding residence papers.

"We are desperate," the strikers' spokesman, Mohammed Bouterfas, said yesterday. "We want to become legal residents.

"That's the only way we can stop employers exploiting us with miserable wages and inhuman conditions. Once we get papers we can tackle the other indignities. We're mobilising for a general strike."

As the harvest season gets going, and immigrants flock to Almeria as they do every October, farmers admit they need people without papers to work the invernaderos, the vast polythene greenhouses that make this arid region rich.

"Of course we want our workers to be legal," says Eduardo Lopez, Almeria's spokesman for the farmers' association, Coag. "But we can't legalise everyone because we need every hand we can get, and once you give them papers they leave Almeria and go elsewhere. They just use Almeria as a trampoline. It's their first step to legal work in Europe."

Workers in Almeria earn half Spain's average rural wage, some £18 a day, with no guarantees or social security. No wonder Spaniards won't touch these jobs, and indocumentados stay long enough to get legal, then move on.

Mr Lopez is worried because Mr Bouterfas is encouraging workers to abandon the neat vegetable rows to demonstrate outside San Jose church in support of the hunger strikers.

On Wednesday, other workers started a similar hunger strike in La Roqueta, south west of Almeria, and more are planned. The Civil Guard use batons to keep order, and the tension, locals say, mounts daily.

"The work is hard, conditions are terrible, the workers are ghettoised in shantytowns, held to ransom because they're illegal," said Juan Miralles of the immigrants' welfare association, Welcome to Almeria. "The government wants an even tighter immigration law. There's bound to be trouble."

Few of the improvements in work and housing promised after February's clashes have been implemented, say pickers' leaders.

"Seasonal workers have been coming for 11 years, and still people are hired on street corners and offered no permanent lodgings," says Hamza al Hanafi of the Moroccan workers' association Atime. "When things get out of hand, we act as firemen, but the government must sort things out."

Unions fear incipient ethnic cleansing among immigrants. Emilio Asensio, of the Workers' Commissions trade union, said: "Some employers want to clear out Moroccans and Algerians, who are 75 per cent of the farm workers, and offer short-term contracts, pegged to temporary residence permits, tosupposedly more docile Lithuanians, Latin Americans or sub-Saharans.

"But this will just bring more immigrants to the area and create a dangerous racial pressure cooker."

Some 22,000 immigrants in Almeria applied for residence this year: 8,000 were accepted, 7,000 were rejected and 7,000 are waiting. But farmers still need those rejected, and those appealing cannot be expelled. The hunger strikers want all applicants accepted.

Next week, the government puts final touches to a stiff new aliens law they want to rush through parliament.

Opposition socialists are proposing 50 amendments to clauses they say strip immigrants of constitutional rights.

Doubtless they'll be watching Almeria where, Mr Asensio warns: "We're heading for an explosion."

* Spanish anti-riot police used truncheons to break up blockades at fuel depots yesterday, but defiant fishermen, farmers and transport workers demanding lower diesel costs vowed to stage more protests. Petrol and diesel are flowing at Barcelona depots again that had been cut off for several days as Spain joined a wave of earlier protest that spread across Europe.

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