In Portugal, Asian workers pick fruit and live precariously

Agricultural labourers from India, Nepal and Pakistan work in the greenhouses during the day and learn Portuguese at night.

Many farm workers who come to Portugal are from Asia and Africa [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera]
Many farm workers who come to Portugal are from Asia and Africa [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera]

It is 9:30am in São Teotónio, a tiny farming town of 6,500 people, and the bell has just rung at the local school.

“This is a normal school like any other,” said head teacher Rui Dias Coelho, as the familiar sound of shrieking kids unleashed at break-time, “except for this one thing.”

As pupils spill out into the courtyard, it is not Portuguese that fills the air, but a mixture of Hindi, English, Nepali and Bengali.

More than a third of the pupils here are recent arrivals to Portugal.

Some are French or German, but the vast majority are the children of farm workers from South Asia and Africa who work in Portugal’s booming greenhouse industry.

In fact, the actual population of the town today is believed to be many thousands more than the 2011 census suggests.

Wide-eyed and shy with long, black hair and a pink hair band, 12-year-old Naima arrived at the school three weeks ago from Bangladesh.

“She doesn’t speak Portuguese yet” offered 13-year old Sanaya, who is Indian, standing next to her best friend Latika, 12, who is from Nepal.

Most children do not speak Portuguese or English when they first arrive, but soon become trilingual [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera]
Sanaya and Latika are trilingual and fluent in Portuguese, but when they are together they speak a mixture of English and Hindi.

They have both been at the school for more than five years – although that is not the usual pattern.

“Mostly children from these backgrounds stay two or three years at the most – then their parents move with the seasonal work, and they’re gone. These are factors the school has no control over,” said Dias Coelho.

The entirely Portuguese staff, including Dias Coelho, have their hands full; most children do not speak Portuguese or English on their arrival, leaving teachers, children and their parents without a common language in which to communicate.

Does the school have a translation and interpreting service? “Only Google”, said Dias Coelho.

The school has come up with a system that replaces national curriculum Portuguese lessons with Portuguese as a foreign language to some students, several times a week.

The population in São Teotónio is ageing and small-scale farming had been in slow decline before the new arrivals [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera]
The school has a new cultural mediator, Tania Santos, to support integration.

“Communication is the key” she said. “We really have to break down the barriers of separation” – barriers that are evident well beyond the school walls, in the local area.

Small-scale farming in decline

São Teotónio is located in Odemira, a large rural municipality in the southwestern Alentejo region bordering the wild Atlantic, whose name, meaning the Prince’s River, comes from Arabic (wad, emir) – a legacy of five-centuries of Muslim rule in Portugal, from the 8th to the 13th centuries.

The population is ageing and small-scale farming has been in slow decline – as it is all over the country.

Young people leave for the cities to study. Few return, and those who do prefer to work in local tourism or the service industries.

Running though the territory is part of the Southwestern Alentejo and Vicentine Coast natural park, one of Portugal’s most important natural reserves for biodiversity and unique habitats, home to dozens of species found nowhere else – and also to the greenhouse farming industry that is booming in this part of the world.

It was its similarities to the climate in California that first attracted multinational berry producers to this sleepy region some 15 years ago, when they started operating within a government-designated farming zone in the natural park.

Today, Odemira hosts some 3,600 hectares of greenhouse tunnels where raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and salad leaves are among the produce grown by a vast network of companies, many belonging to agro-industrial groups like the American Driscoll’s. It’s a thriving industry; almost 27,000 tonnes of raspberries were produced in Portugal in 2018, compared to just 18,000 the year before.

Vitali Siminionov (l) and Tajamal Abbas take Portuguese night classes at the school [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera]
Portuguese supermarkets are full of this produce, but their main markets are elsewhere in Europe, including the UK, Germany, Holland and Belgium. This intensive agriculture is dependent on fertilisers and pesticides, and requires significant quantities of water that are supplied from a network of irrigation canals from the Mira river and the Santa Clara dam.

Last year, the government approved an increase to the area on which poly-tunnels are allowed, causing an outcry from ecological groups concerned with the effects on the environment of the natural park.

One group, Juntos pelo Sudoeste, has pledged to take the government to court.

Typically, the farms employ hundreds of permanent staff, but many of them increase that workforce two to three-fold during the picking season, leading to a surge in the demand for manual labour in the spring, which dies down again in autumn.

Hardly any of those farm workers are Portuguese; the demographics are constantly shifting, but the recruitment of large numbers of workers from abroad to fill demand has been a steady characteristic of this industry since the beginning.

Alberto Matos, who runs the Alentejo branch of the NGO SolImigrante, supporting migrants’ rights, lists recent points of origin including India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Bulgaria, Moldova and Algeria.

“Agriculture is an entry point for people coming to Portugal,” explains Matos “no one sticks at it for very long. But when they arrive, people are very vulnerable to exploitation, because of the recruitment processes. There are lots of middlemen, who exploit them when it comes to salaries, to transport costs and to housing. From a minimum wage salary which should be 600 euros, they might only take home 300 euros.”

Beatriz Pimentel is the People and Welfare manager at The Summer Berry Company, a British-owned company specialising in raspberries that employs 300 farm workers, mostly men, including employees from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The company stopped using recruitment companies that hire foreign workers from abroad, and instead relies on word of mouth.

“If we didn’t have immigrants coming here, we wouldn’t have anyone to do the work,” she said, adding that Portuguese people do not look for these kind of jobs.

“We do a lot of cultural activities for integration here – we give it a lot of importance.”

Summer Berry is another company involved in the council’s local integration plan, whose objectives include improving access to healthcare and to housing – an urgent issue in the local area.

SolImigrante has repeatedly raised concerns about migrant farm workers’ living conditions, as many live on site in repurposed shipping containers with rents of up to 100 euros a month. Like the greenhouse tunnels, this accommodation can only be made of prefabricated materials, as bricks and mortar construction is restricted within the natural park.

Summer Berry provides onsite lodgings for some workers.

“We see it as a temporary solution for employees. It’s cheaper but it also means people are not lonely, they have company at the end of the day … And at some point they move on,” said Pimentel.

In the towns of Odemira, almost everyone says local housing shortages leave new migrants with few options.

Divakar Ghimire, for example, picks raspberries for Maravilha farms and shares a small “hostel” in São Teotónio with 12 other Nepalese men, all farm workers.

Sitting out in the street on a stool in the sunshine, Ghimire says he hopes to apply for residency here within the next two years.

Many immigrants have come here in recent years for the same reason; for most, Portugal is not a final destination, but a stepping-stone on the way to more prosperous European countries like Germany.

Others, like Mani, find work in small commercial networks catering to migrant workers – small Indian grocery shops, restaurants and the barber shop Mani works in.

“I’ve never picked fruit – I was a barber in India too, like my father and grandfather too,” Mani said.

“Now I have some Bulgarian and some Portuguese customers too … they like what I do.”

Tania Santos is the cultural mediator at Sao Teotonio school [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera]
But in the town’s traditionally Portuguese shops and restaurants, it is still unusual to see brown faces.

There are rumours of resentment among local residents, as well as fears that Portugal’s growing far right could exploit the situation, as happened in neighbouring Spain.

But Alberto Santos is hopeful – he thinks people will adapt in time.

“There is some xenophobia of course. But look, a while ago the immigrants here were all Bulgarians and everyone talked about it – but eventually they got used to them,” he said.

After a long day of work, Portuguese classes

As night falls on São Teotónio, the lights are still on at the school.

Three times a week, it stays open until midnight to hold classes for adults from the region, who come here at the end of a long day in the greenhouses – knowing they will need to speak some Portuguese in order to qualify for permanent residency.

There are currently 500 adult students registered for night classes – almost matching the daytime intake of 600 children.

Moldovan Vitali Siminionov, who picks flowers for a living, and whose two children both study at the school, joked: “They’re always correcting me saying ‘Dad, that’s not how you say it!”

Today, Siminionov and his classmates Tajamal Abbas from Pakistan, and Inderpal Singh Tiwana, Jitender and Charanjit Singh from India, are learning Portuguese pronouns.

They work in the greenhouses – though Singh is currently out of a job, supporting his family on unemployment benefits that the company, Sudoberry, gives employees in the winter months.

At 9pm, a new class begins, the last lesson of the day.

Moroccan farm worker Muhammad Alsawaadi finishes his studies, and heads off with two heavy bags of groceries.

Three times a week, he makes the 8km journey on foot, from his home in the town of Brejão, and then back again – two hours each way.

“All so he can learn our language,” said a school caretaker, watching him disappear into the night.

Well stocked Indian shops are common in Odemira [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera

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