In Portugal, Asian workers pick fruit and live precariously

It’s 9.30am in the tiny farming town of São Teotónio, population 6500 - and the bell has just rung at the local middle school. “This is a normal school like any other,”says headteacher Rui Dias Coelho, as the familiar shrieking of kids unleashed at break time starts to echo down the corridors “except for this one thing.” 

As pupils spill out into the courtyard, it’s not Portuguese that fills the air, but a mixture of Hindi, English, Nepali and Bengali. Over a third of the pupils here are recent migrants to Portugal; some are French or German, but the vast majority are the children of farm workers who come to the Portuguese South from Asia and Africa to work in the booming greenhouse industry. In fact, the real population of the town today is thought to be many thousands more than the 2011 census suggests. 

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 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]

Wide eyed and shy with long, black hair and a pink Alice band, 12 year old Naima arrived at the school for just three weeks ago from Bangladesh. “She doesn’t speak Portuguese yet” offers 13-year old Sanaya, who is Indian, standing next to her best friend Latika, 12, who is from Nepal. Sanaya and Latika are tri-lingual and fluent in Portuguese, but when they’re together they speak a mixture of English and Hindi. 

They’ve both been at the school for over five years - though that’s 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.” In the meantime, the entirely Portuguese staff, including Dias Coelho, have their hands full; most such children do not speak a word of Portuguese or English on their arrival, leaving teachers, children and their parents without a lingua franca in which to communicate. Asked if they have any translators or interpreting services to help them, Dias Coelho replies: “Only Google”. 

Facing a challenge that’s virtually unprecedented anywhere else in the country, 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 school also has a new cultural mediator, Tania Santos, who has been brought in to help with integration: “Communication is the key” she says, “we really have to break down the barriers of separation” -  barriers that are evident well beyond the school walls, in the local area.  

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. 

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] 

The population here 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 of them returning, 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 a vast territory of plastic, some 3600 hectares of greenhouse tunnels where raspberries, bluberries, 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. Portuguese supermarkets are full of this produce, but their main markets are elsewhere in Europe, including the UK, Germany, Holland and Belgium. This is intensive agriculture, dependent on fertilizers and pesticides, and requiring singificant quantities of water that are supplied from an extensive network of irrigation canals from the Mira river and the Santa Clara dam. 

Most children do not speak Portuguese or English when they first arrive, but soon become trilingual [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera]Most children do not speak Portuguese or English when they first arrive, but soon become trilingual [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera] 

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 farmworkers 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 beginnig. Alberto Matos, who runs the Alentejo branch of the NGO SolImigrante, supporting immigrants’ 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.”

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

Vitali Siminionov (l) and Tajamal Abbas take Portuguese night classes at the school [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera]Vitali Siminionov (l) and Tajamal Abbas take Portuguese night classes at the school [Ana Naomi de Sousa/Al Jazeera] 

The company stopped using recruitment companies that hire foreign workers from abroad, and instead relies on word of mouth and people coming to them looking for work. “If we didn’t have immigrants coming here we wouldn’t have anyone to do the work.” she states - adding that Portuguese people don’t 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 also one of the companies 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 end up living on-site in repurposed shipping containers for which they pay rents of up to €100 a month. Like the greenhouse tunnels, this acommodation can only be made of pre-fabricated materials, as bricks and mortar construction is restricted within the natural park.  Summer Berry provides on-site lodgings for some of the workers, but Pimentel believes it’s a good option “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.” In the towns of Odemira, almost everyone mentions the local housing shortages that leaves newly arrived 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 within the 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 grandather too.” Mani says his reputation has grown in this small town. “Now I have some Bulgarian and some Portuguese customers too… they like what I do.” But in the town’s traditionally Portuguese shops and restaurants, it’s still unusual to see brown faces. 


There’s a lot of rumours of resentment among local residents, as well as fears that Portugal’s growing far right could exploit the situation in this region as has happened in neigbouring Spain. But Alberto Santos is hopeful - he thinks it just takes people time to adapt. “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 says. 

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 all over 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. Headteacher Dias Coelho hopes the classes will also reach the parents of pupils at the school, like Moldovan Vitali Siminionov, who picks flowers for a living, and whose two children both study here: “They’re always correcting me saying ‘Dad, that’s not how you say it!” he laughs. 

Today, Siminionov and his classmates Tajamal Abbas from Pakistan, and Inderpal Singh Tiwana, Jitender and Charanjit Singh from India, are learning Portuguese pronouns. All of them work in the greenhouses - though Singh is currently out of work, supporting his family on unemployment benefits that the company Sudoberry gives its employees in the winter months. At 9pm, the classes turnover and new students start to arrive for the last lesson of the day. Moroccan farmworker Muhammad Alsawaadi has finished his studies, and is heading off with two heavy plastic bags of groceries. Three times a week he makes the 8km journey here 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!” exclaims a school caretaker, watching him disappear into the night.  


Article originally published by Aljazeera in 23/11/2020

by Ana Naomi de Sousa
Jogos Sem Fronteiras | 24 November 2020 | agricultural work, asian workers, nepal, Portugal