Accident highlights precarious situation of immigrants without documents

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In January 20001, a group of 12 Ecuadorians died in Lorca, in the Spanish region of Murcia, when the van taking them to work was hit by a train. The deceased were working illegally as agricultural workers. The tragedy highlighted the precarious and illegal employment situation of many immigrants without residence and work permits. It led to farmers in Lorca ceasing to employ immigrant workers without documents, causing severe hardship, and to a bilateral agreement between Spain and Ecuador on regularising the position of such people. Furthermore, the accident triggered an unprecedented protest movement from the immigrant community.

On 3 January 2001, shortly after 07.30, a van carrying 14 Ecuadorian nationals, including the driver, was hit by a train in an unguarded level crossing in Lorca (Murcia). The vehicle, which was permitted to carry only eight people, was hit when crossing the track by a train travelling at 120 kilometres per hour. The impact caused the instantaneous death of 12 of the 14 people. The only survivors of the tragedy were the driver of the van and a 13-year-old girl.

The group of Ecuadorians were travelling to work in a plantation in the outskirts of Lorca when the accident occurred. All except the driver were working without the required work permit and in precarious conditions. For the work they were carrying out in the fields, they received an approximate daily wage of ESP 4,000 to ESP 5,000, including transport expenses. This depended on the number of hours they worked per day, which could be more than 10. In addition, the employer that hired them had already been condemned several times for illegal hiring and had 70 cases of unpaid wages outstanding.

Regional representatives from trade unions such as the Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) and the General Workers' Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) stated that the illegal and precarious position of the workers involved in the accident was not an isolated case. They claimed that in Lorca, and all over the Murcia region, there were many employers which hired immigrant workers in an irregular position and did not pay their wages regularly. The president of the employers' organisation, the Federation of Agrarian Cooperatives of Murcia (Federación de Cooperativas Agrarias de Murcia, FEOCAM), admitted that most farmers in Murcia had immigrants without papers among their workforce because the law prevented them from employing these workers legally. Farmers estimate that in Murcia there are around 20,000 immigrants who have not been able to regularise their situation, most of whom work in agriculture. The trade unions estimate the figure as twice as high.

Farmer decide not to hire more immigrants without documents

As a result of the accident and the surrounding publicity, and fearing sanctions, farmers in the Lorca area decided not to recruit any more immigrant workers without documents, even if this meant losing their harvests. The situation for such employers has become worse since 23 January 2001, when the reform of the Law on Foreign Persons (ES0012224N) came into force. Under the new text of the law, fines for hiring immigrant workers without documents can be as high as ESP 10 million.

The current situation could not be more paradoxical. On one side, fields are empty and farmers insist that the lack of workers could result in the loss of 50% of their harvests. The FEOCAM president has confirmed that Murcian agriculture needs about 10,000 to 12,000 immigrant workers. Most of this manual labour is needed in family agriculture, that is to say small and medium-sized farms. On the other side, there are the immigrants without documents, who have suddenly lost their jobs and have no money to pay the rent or food. Many are taking refuge in churches or the houses of compatriots who may be in the same situation themselves in a few weeks. Until now, they have been fed thanks to charity, but humanitarian organisations themselves admit that they will not be able to maintain this situation for very long.

Action begins

The Lorca situation has sparked a movement of protest by the immigrant community with no precedent in Spain. First, some 300 immigrants walked 70 kilometres from Lorca to Murcia to demand residence and work permits. Soon after, a group of 80 people, from both Ecuador and the Maghreb (northern Africa) decided to lock themselves in a church as a means of protest. This form of protest soon extended to five churches in other Murcian localities. Finally, protests began in other regions such as Valencia, Zaragoza, Madrid and Barcelona. In this last-named city, tension increased when a group of 300 immigrants decided to start a hunger strike. The objective of all these mobilisations is the same: to demand from the Spanish government the regularisation of the immigrants' situation.

Government reaction

The conservative government made it clear from from the beginning that it did not have any intention of introducing new regularisation processes for immigrants. For its part, the opposition Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) proposed a provisional regularisation of the situation of immigrants in the Community of Murcia as a transitional solution, but this proposal was rejected by the government.

On 31 January, in an attempt to resolve the problems of Ecuadorian community, highlighted by the situation in Murcia, the governments of Spain and Ecuador signed a bilateral agreement. The agreement provides that immigrants without documents must accept voluntary repatriation to Ecuador in order to obtain there the documents that will allow them to return to Spain afterwards. In short, the only solution for those Ecuadorian nationals who want to work in Spain but who do not have the permits is to leave the country, at least temporarily.

However, for many this is an absolutely non-viable option. On one hand, many do not trust their own government and they fear that once in Ecuador it will not let them return to Spain. On the other hand, many of them sold their houses when leaving Ecuador and thus accrued a debt of some ESP 400,000 each in order to pay for the journey to Spain. Therefore, the option of returning to Ecuador appears very difficult.

The Spanish government has been negotiating similar agreements with other countries.

Commentary

The case of the fatal accident in Lorca has exposed to view the miserable living and working conditions of many immigrants without documents in Spain.

Employers argue that they do not employ these workers legally because the law prevents them from doing so. Agriculture certainly requires manual labour at short notice and farmers cannot wait for the long period that the regularisation procedure entails. However, each year's experience should allow these employers to plan the labour they will need. In this way, they could direct this demand through the established channels. In fact, as a result of the recent events in Lorca they have been required to do so, and in less than a month's time 10,000 offers of employment are to be made.

In any case, what is clear is that the legal obstacles do not justify the fact that immigrants work in such bad conditions. In spite of the high demand for workers, in Murcia there currently are about 1,600 unemployed farmers - indicating that they are not prepared to work at any rate of pay. However, this is not a new problem. It goes back to a wider social problem related to the labour-intensive way that agriculture has traditionally used its workforce in Spain, characterised by a strong seasonality and precariousness.

Another remarkable fact is that the events in Lorca have acted as the detonator of a protest movement and of demands by foreign immigrants, on a scale unprecedented in Spain. This mobilisation has received relatively strong support from some sections of civil society.

Finally, it is really pitiful that such a dramatic event as a train accident has had to occur for this situation to come to light, as happened a year previously with xenophobic incidents in El Ejido, a town in the southern region of Almería (ES0004184F). In the words of the Catalan sociologist, Salvador Cardús: "the existence of immigrants living in miserable conditions who work under an exploitation regime resembling that of the times of slavery should not be something that only a serious train accident can uncover" (quoted in the La Vanguardia newspaper on 10 January). (Berta Pongiluppi, Fundación Cirem)

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