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Spain's new want ad: Moroccan mothers to pick strawberries

'Circular migration' programs promote ethical guest laborer exchanges. Mothers are preferred because they're apt to return home to see their families.

By Daniela GersonContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 29, 2007


Last January Antonio Martín González traveled to Morocco on a mission. A strawberry farmer on Spain's rapidly developing Atlantic coast, he needed an annual source of hard-working labor that would leave when the season ended. His solution? Moroccan mothers.

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"We are looking for women with family responsibilities, so that when they finish their work and collect their money they will want to go back to see their family, their children," he says, the scent of berries ready to be exported wafting lightly through his cramped office.

Juan Antonio Millán, the Socialist mayor of this city of 17,600, calls this "ethical migration." Inspired in part by the area's many former guest workers who toiled in the factories and fields of Germany during the 1960s, Cartaya started contracting its first Polish temporary laborers seven years ago. In 2004, the city officially expanded recruiting to Morocco. Designed to address both Spain's labor needs and Morocco's development needs, the program received €1.2 million ($1.6 million) from European Union sponsoring-agency Aeneas.

"Immigration is the foundation of development," says Mr. Millán. "When they return they will take not only money but a lot of education."

A model for Europe

Calling the experience a model of using Moroccan-based contracting to fill European labor needs, Aeneas has proposed expanding funding to other Spanish provinces and to sectors such as tourism, construction, and domestic services. Spain also recently launched a temporary-visa partnership with Senegal (see story). EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini last month encouraged member states to develop similar "circular migration" programs with sub-Saharan African countries.

But in the last two years, Cartaya's program hasn't been as "circular" as hoped: fewer than half of the workers returned to their countries. So the program directors in Cartaya have stepped up control of the selection process. One of the new stipulations is that only mothers will be selected. The competition this year was intense: From 26,000 applications submitted to a Moroccan job center, 5,500 were selected.

This year's new Moroccan recruits began to arrive in mid-March, with visas that will send them home at season's end in June. But despite the short duration of their stay, they will be offered introductory Spanish classes taught by Arabic-speaking teachers, lectures on prevention of gender violence as well as alcohol and drug abuse, and classes in subjects from cooking to accounting. In addition, if they comply with the program's requirement to return home, they will be guaranteed the opportunity to work the next season.

Millán says he sees "no contradiction" between the requirement to return and the goal of integration. The intention, he explains, is that they will, "return, each year in better conditions, for different agricultural campaigns."

At González's farm, Arabic singing