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.

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.

"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

On an unseasonably hot March day at Mr. Gonzalez's farm, dozens of women were bent over at 90 degrees, plucking the plump fruit from the stems. Many sang in Arabic and a Berber language as they worked, sometimes rolling their tongues in a shrill trill that rang through the fields. At the lunch break, the lone Spanish worker sat alone, headphones on. A Lithuanian woman served as a manager. The rest were Moroccan.

González likes it that way. Five years ago, before there was an official program, he was among the region's first farmers to recruit Moroccan women, whom he favors for their cultural customs. "Any business owner wants people who will get up early, work all day, that don't smoke, don't drink, don't go to the discothèque," he says.

Still, his point of view is not common in Huelva, a province of nearly half a million, where Eastern European women are the majority of the 32,000 temporary workers hired annually.

"We are not accustomed that a girl will stop at five o'clock in the afternoon and start praying," he explains. "When you contract a Pole or a Romanian it's more or less the same culture."

Mothers miss home

A 15-minute drive from González's farm, the culture gap is on display at the "House of the Cat," an old firefighting camp that now sleeps up to 1,000 temporary workers.

On a recent evening, Romanian women with dyed hair and exposed midriffs complained about living so far removed from town. Inside the far trailers, a few Moroccan women painted elaborate henna designs on each other, having finished baking the next day's bread.

Saida Zwin, a middle-aged mother of four, is on her third season picking strawberries in Huelva under the Aeneas initiative, but is not satisfied with the system. Speaking in Arabic through a translator, she says, "My husband is going crazy, left all alone." She would prefer to have a permanent visa, bring her family over, and vacation in Morocco.

That is what Zohra Oualiddouche does, now that she has permanent legal status. Five years ago, at age 17, she left her town in the Atlas Mountains where she made €3 a day working in the fields – not enough to help provide meat in her family of eight – and followed a neighbor's tip that González was looking for workers. She came to work for him, left to work illegally in Portugal, and then returned. When Spain offered amnesty to nearly 600,000 illegal immigrants in 2005, González sponsored her. Now she lives in a house in town, sharing it with four roommates who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar illegally.

During the strawberry season she now makes more than 10 times what she would in Morocco but she still wouldn't recommend her path to others. She says she was scammed into paying thousands extra to come to Spain and has been disappointed with the pay here, where the labor is taxing.

Recruiting the mothers, though, "is a good thing," she says. With the new program, it is made clear that the employer must cover travel and housing, and the women are generally older – both improvements, she says. "An older woman thinks, 'Well, I have children, I have a husband;' it's not like the young ones here who want lots of things, who want to make a future."

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