Watermelon work

Watermelon pieces

Did you eat any melon over Christmas? Or a strawberry? Have you seen a watermelon since the summer, maybe cut up in pieces in a boxed-up plastic ready-to-eat fruit salad? If so, that will help you relate to the dilemma for Spanish farmers and the workers they employ that I wrote about in an article called “Misconceiving ‘seasons’ in global food systems, the case of the EU Seasonal Workers Directive” published in the European Law Journal [1].

In this journal article, I essentially analyse a law, a European Law, but one that now governs the conditions under which seasonal workers from outside the EU can come to Europe to work in agriculture (and other ‘seasonal’ sectors) [2]. It also outlines their rights while they are here, making it both labour law and migration law [3]. This is brought together in an attempt to meet the needs across Europe for workers that pick the counter-seasonal crops such as strawberries, raspberries, melons and watermelons, as well as those summer vegetable crops that I have written about in the past.

A central theme in my work is about the disconnections of modern food production. But it is also about work. Labour, work, people, people who move, people who stay still. You can’t have workers without people. We are, and they are, one and the same. Yet law after law, country after country, policy after policy attempts to do just this by limiting the rights of workers when they come to host countries to work. The EU Seasonal Workers Directive is a recent version of this attempt to disconnect the rights and needs of people who migrate to work, from their status as workers. Although the UK played a large role in its negotiation, they ultimately opted out of its adoption, and then, as we know, opted out of the EU altogether. Yet, this doesn’t mean that the influence of this directive stops at the UK border. The workers that pick many of our out of season crops in countries such as Spain and Italy, are governed by it. Furthermore, the UK is looking for options post-Brexit for how to govern seasonal work by migrant workers and this could give an insightful suggestion of what that might look like. This blog then, brings out a few elements of the article, which looks at the directive from the lens of a case study in Southern Spain: where our watermelons come from.

The farmers that I interviewed in Southern Spain work within the law. They ensure that they produce to the highest health and safety regulations, that they are registered, and work with certified exporters. These exporters (sometimes called co-operatives because they began as farmer cooperatives) then do an extensive quality selection in which they throw away much of the fruit and vegetables which do not meet the standards that you, your mum or your Grandparents might want for your year-round desert of prepared fruit salad.

Due to the very low wages and hard working conditions, not many people want to work picking these fruit and vegetables. The labour market is therefore dominated by migrant workers who have fewer language and transferable skills to find better paid and easier work elsewhere. Most people have all the legal requirements to work. However, for various reasons, the most vulnerable do not. They may not been in the EU long enough to regularise their status, they may not have employers to support them in doing this, their papers may have been rejected, they may not have had the money or the contacts to get a visa, they may have escaped distressing situations, made arduous (planned or unplanned) journeys towards the EU, some may also be refugees. In any case, these individuals also suffer from the need to work in order to live, and are some of the most vulnerable in the labour market. Furthermore, farmers generally do not want to hire them because they risk a €10,000 minimum fine if they are caught employing workers who do not have legal permission to work. So what happens?

The European Union want to solve the seasonal need for fruit pickers by offering temporary visas for people to come for a few months at a time to European countries (where most of your strawberries, tomatoes and watermelons are produced). In theory this is a model of carrot and stick – the carrot, the incentive, for prospective workers in countries like Morocco or the Ukraine is the temporary visa. I will ignore in this short blog the contradictions of the idea of ‘circular’ migration although I’ve covered this in the article. In short, it is not as advantageous as it seems at first glance. The main ‘stick’ or disincentive is increased border control that has been happening in the same context as the development of this directive, and the increased marginalisation of undocumented migrant workers who are already within the European Union but who are not given any options under this new directive.

Although this may sound logical, the EU Seasonal Workers Directive, in fact, is created in a context of false divisions and it therefore creates several more problems. Firstly, as we have explored, seasonal agriculture, in a context of intensive production, follows the time periods of when you like to eat melon, as opposed to when melon (etc.) is naturally in season. That means more than a few months of the year. So farmers like workers who are already in the country, who they can hire in person and work with over a steady period of time, building daily working relationships with.

Under temporary work schemes such as the EU Seasonal Workers Directive, migrant workers have reduced rights, therefore facilitating the creation of a legally mandated second-class tiered labour force. Temporary workers are also highly vulnerable to falling outside of the terms of their visa. Such seasonal work visas link their visa permission to their employers, something that makes them highly dependent on them and vulnerable to abuse [4].

Finally, seasonal migration is simply a form of temporary migration, aimed at avoiding the creation of a long term ethnic community in the host country. Historically, wherever host countries have attempted to invite ‘guest workers’ yet avoid settlement of migrant workers, this has failed. So the EU here, is criticised as still wanting to import ‘labour’ and not ‘people’ [5].

Let’s return to the watermelons and the farmer who intends to play it by the book. Unfortunately, this famer’s ultimate buyer doesn’t care much for the rule book. What they care about is ensuring that you get your summer fruits, cheaply, regardless of the season and regardless of who picks it and how protected they are or not. So the farmer is placed into a very difficult position which seems to sum up the tensions between our year round demand for cheap food and the just-in-time immediacy and demands that this puts on the people that produce it. A small farmer in Southern Spain described the situation in this way:

Once they were going to come [the export cooperative], we were arguing about the watermelons, whether we should pick them or not and in the end they said to me; “alright, this afternoon we pick them” and I said, “this afternoon I don’t have any workers” and they said; “either we come and get them this afternoon or we don’t come”. So I said, “Well, come” and when they come to pick the watermelons, I need a lot of workers, four people, and so I say, “where am I going to find those people? I can’t get…” so I went to the garage in El Ejido and there were four Africans just there.
[cited in 1].

The ‘watermelon dilemma’ of this farmer therefore demonstrates the final reason why the EU Seasonal Workers Directive, and other similar laws ultimately do not answer the problem of seasonal work: much seasonal work does not require workers for three or five or nine months, but a couple of days. In small scale production, you could perhaps ask family to help, but not on this scale. In these ‘enclaves of production’ at the European border, where everything is orientated so that it can provide cheap food to Tescos, Waitrose or your local greengrocer, the most vulnerable workers will always be needed to take this work. If they need the scarce work they can get without papers, while this work exists, they will probably be ready to take it. Yet the EU regulators prefer to simply ignore these watermelon pickers. By not offering them a route to legality this work will also condemn them to ongoing poverty and precariousness. In the process of drafting the EU Seasonal Workers Directive, an option was proposed to allow such migrants to apply for a seasonal workers visa (which would be fitting as they are the real ‘seasonal’ workers), yet this was rejected, leaving the watermelon pickers in an ever more precarious situation, dependant on the ever more scarce and desperate farmers whose lack of profits push them to take the risk to hire the people in most need of work.

There are many problems with this directive. However, in my opinion, the biggest problem that it represents, is the disconnection. This is the disconnection between a society that is happy to eat cheap food but that does not want to accommodate the workers that produce it with the same rights as they enjoy. Should the UK come up with similar legislation in the upcoming years we should be very careful indeed to pay attention to the underlying assumptions and disconnections and their impacts on the people that might come to do seasonal (or un-seasonal) work and on those who are already here doing it. In the meantime, this directive is up for revision in 2019.


1. Medland L (2017) Misconceiving ‘seasons’ in global food systems: The case of the EU
Seasonal Workers Directive. European Law Journal, 23(3-4), pp.157-171.

2. European Union (2014) Directive 2014/36/EU on the conditions of entry and stay of third-country nationals for the purpose of employment as seasonal workers. Official Journal of the European Union L 94/375.

3. Fudge J and Olsson PH (2014) The EU Seasonal Workers Directive: When Immigration Controls Meet Labour Rights. European Journal of Migration and Law 16(4): 439-466.

4. Rijken C (2015) Legal Approaches to Combating the Exploitation of Third-Country National Seasonal Workers. International Journal of Comparative Labour Law and Industrial Relations 31(4): 431-451.

5. Zoeteweij-Turhan M.H (2017) The Seasonal Workers Directive: ‘… but some are more equal than others’. European Labour Law Journal, 8(1), pp.28-44.

Olive Oil production in Morocco: so many questions

Olives close up

No standard salad would be complete without olive oil. Our friends the lettuce, tomato and cucumber now come automatically accompanied by the vinegar and the oil, the oil and the vinegar. Perhaps in a bottle, perhaps in a sachet, perhaps in some kind of over complicated vinaigrette processed by a supermarket near you, along with lots of salt and some corn syrup, a 21st century salad in the Western world would be naked without an olive dressing.

This weekend, after an intensive academic seminar in Morocco[1], we studious seminar attendees were rewarded with a field trip. So I was taken out to visit three agricultural holdings in action. They all grew olives, but apart from that, had little in common. These three: large, medium and small producers in turn gave us a hugely insightful opportunity to witness agricultural change in action. Since the turn of the millennium the large site, on previously colonial, then state-held land had been an apple orchard and had now turned to olive oil. The medium one had been focused on cattle, making use of previous common land, that was now enclosed land, and was now diversifying with oil, watermelons, and more. The small producer produced a full range of things including olives for their own oil and most recently had established a side income in both fish and honey production.

Firstly, we learnt how to make money. Morocco’s heavily financed agricultural development programme, Plan Maroc Vert, which aims to intensify the agricultural system into a new-age competitive beacon of the modern food system, offers attractive incentives to spruce up agriculture in the country with new machines. All you need is to write a proposal (a report), have money to invest (from bank credit perhaps) and an impressive part of your money will be returned to you in state subsidies within two years.

So, for example, all three of the small, medium and large producers we visited, had benefited from a 100% state subsidy for irrigation of their crops. In the case of the ‘super-intensive’ large producer this meant state funding for the irrigation of 65,780[2] olive trees from groundwater on a rapidly declining water table. Some of the more landscape-savvy of the seminar group reminded us that olive trees had been grown in the region for centuries precisely because they did not need this kind of constant watering but could grow deep roots and access scarce water themselves. This, however, is not of interest to the ‘super-intensive’ producer. This producer is simply interested in the logic of economic growth, which in this case says: plant the trees closer, and add the chemical nutrients to the water while you’re at it. And so, these 65,780 trees are watered with the addition of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and ammonium, yet no studies are evident of what all these substances may be doing to the groundwater. By any other logic this would be a big concern, nitrogen pollution, particularly. Nitrogen pollution of water supplies, or more simply, of the nitrogen cycle, is one of the only planetary ecosystem boundaries that we have already crossed as a human race. This was not relevant in the lesson of how to make money.

Yet, I work with people, so where were they in the Moroccan olive grove? Well, it seems they have been replaced by a machine in this super-intensive oil production. The company, with links to power as far up as it goes, has invested in a machine that drives over the trees like a bridge. It shakes their branches and collects their olives.  So much for an investment in rural employment.

Some new olive trees defy the machine but are pretty un-reliable as employers too. These trees that the machine can’t manage provide jobs for only a very precarious seasonal and short-term workforce. I was told that 100 people would be employed for a space of around 200 hectares, and these jobs would last 2-3 months. The company assured us though that these workers would get both contracts and, in order to have those contracts, bank accounts. Thank goodness the banks aren’t losing out.

I should be kinder in tone about the small and medium sized farmers that we visited. Not only did their olive oil taste a lot richer, but they invited us to tea, and allowed us to share their experience of oil production more closely.  They humoured our partial language skills and our many, many questions. This was the second major thing we learnt on the trip – we were a team. We were a slightly chaotic, and erratic team, but really quite effective. A little like slugs on a cabbage, we chewed up every bit of information every which way.

Releasing a group of 13 researchers at a family farm, was a bit like inviting children to a playground, or providing clowns with an audience. Each of us found something to play with, interact with, reflect upon and smile. Some of us looked at the trees or identified the plant specimens. Others wrote notes, or took pictures, or carried out semi-formal interviews with whichever family member we felt most comfortable with. Others played with material toys, climbing ladders, smelling fruit or knocking on enormous oil containers to discover them empty. As we found the olive branches, force-fed powder food through irrigated pipes, or in the smaller farm providing shade for some resident chickens, this seminar group grew together, discovering the knowledge of the peasant farmer.  This experience was far richer and engaging than any power point presentation or report.

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[1] “Workshop on Agricultural Labour and Rural Landscapes in the Arab World” Organised by the Thimar collective and supported by the École Nationale d’Agriculture de Meknès, the Leverhulme Trust and the London School of Economics.

[2] Calculated based on 286 plants/hectare in a cultivated area of 230 hectares, this was the details of the holding advertised by the company.