First strike by immigrants follows racist riots in El Ejido

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At the beginning of February 2000, El Ejido, a small Andalusian town, was the scene of the most violent outbreak of racism in the recent history of Spain. The immigrants living in this town, mostly illegal workers, responded with an indefinite strike to claim the right to be rehoused, to receive compensation and to legalise their situation.

In early February 2000, El Ejido, a small town in Andalucia, was the scene of the most violent outbreak of racism in the recent history of Spain. The disturbances in this small town of around 50,000 Spanish citizens and 15,000 immigrants from Morocco and Algeria began when a mentally disturbed immigrant was accused of murdering a Spanish woman. During two days and two nights of looting and burning of houses, shops and mosques, the violence against the immigrants reportedly met with the passivity or connivance of most inhabitants of the town, the police and the municipal government. The incident coincided with the coming into force of a new Foreign Persons Law that seeks to promote the social integration of immigrants and for the first time recognises their political and social rights (ES0004183F). Because of the alleged tolerance and even complicity of the authorities, the immigrants living in El Ejido were forced to go on strike – the first such action called by immigrants in Spain – to defend themselves.

The Almería miracle and the abuse of illegal immigrants

El Ejido is one of the towns of the province of Almería that best represents the "Almería miracle". In the mid-1970s, the coast of Almería was one of the poorest areas in southern Spain; now it is one of the richest, thanks to intensive vegetable cultivation. Its economic success is due to a combination of factors: the climate, the technique of "sanding" (mixing beach sand with the earth) to fertilise the land, the use of greenhouses and the cheap labour of North African immigrants. It is not necessary to make a great initial investment to start this type of cultivation and the products have a guaranteed market during the winter months when there is hardly any competition in the European markets. There has been a spectacular growth in greenhouse cultivation, and farmers come from all over the province in search of a few hectares of land: in 10 years, the value of their production has tripled.

A major factor in this economic boom has been immigrant labour. In El Ejido there are around 5,000 immigrants with work permits, but at least another 10,000 work illegally. In the whole of Almería there are 25,000 legal immigrants and about as many illegal ones. The agreed wages in the province are among the country's lowest – only ESP 5,000 per day – and the working conditions are hard in the greenhouses. For this reason, the area does not attract seasonal Andalusian workers, but it does attract immigrant Moroccans and Algerians, many of them willing to work illegally for even lower wages.

Labour fraud, overexploitation and poor housing have thus been common for some time in El Ejido and other towns of the district due to the perceived greed of many agricultural employers and, at best, the indifference of the authorities. In El Ejido, the municipal government run by the People's Party (Partido Popular, PP) not only seemingly ignored this enormous amount of underground employment but even practised an alleged policy of segregation: the immigrants were housed in farms or shanties near the greenhouses and outside the town, where in practice they were not allowed to live. For a great number of inhabitants of the town, coexistence with the Moroccan immigrants was a continuous source of mistrust and discontent. After the violent incidents in El Ejido, prominent leaders of the employers' associations of Almería recognise that the abuse of illegal immigrants had gone too far. The situation was explosive, as proved to be the case.

The immigrants' strike and the outcome of the conflict

The response of the immigrants of El Ejido to the racist violence was to call an indefinite general strike in the district to demand new housing for those who had lost their homes, compensation for damage and the legalisation of workers without work permits. They continued the strike for a week before the central and regional governments agreed to meet these demands, while the local government continued to show indifference. In an agreement signed on 12 February, the employers' organisations and trade unions in Almería also agreed to monitor the correct application of the farm workers' collective agreement in the area. The immigrants called off the strike pending the fulfilment of these commitments. From then on they have met periodically to evaluate the situation, but in spite of delays the strike has not been renewed.

The strike was followed by practically all the immigrants and marked a great leap forward in their organisation in the area. However, the problems that have arisen in the fulfilment of the commitments (mainly the delays in rehousing the immigrants and in paying compensation) have led to tension and disagreement among the different organisations of North African immigrants. Meanwhile, the municipal government, the only institution that failed to sign the agreement, has achieved an important "victory": the new housing will not be built in the town, as was initially planned, but near the greenhouses. Furthermore, the inhabitants of El Ejido show no sign of having changed their views in the light of what has happened: in the March general elections, the People's Party obtained a major victory in the town, increasing its share of votes from 46% to 64%.

Commentary

What has happened in El Ejido undoubtedly marks a watershed. Before El Ejido it could have been said that Spain was one of the least racist countries in the European Union. However, after El Ejido one wonders whether this was not simply because it had not had the opportunity. Immigration in Spain, mainly illegal, is far lower than in other European countries, but it is concentrated in certain areas in which the demand for cheap manual labour generates the vicious circle of illegal immigration, underground employment, segregation and racism. El Ejido is not an isolated case: in 1999 there were several racist incidents in districts and towns with a high concentration of illegal immigrants. Coexistence with people that live and work in subhuman conditions is obviously not easy. It is therefore not possible to attribute this type of incident only to the lack of culture or civic behaviour of the population. These explosive situations are also created by the tolerance of the authorities, the labour inspectors and the employers' associations. Associations of immigrants, trade unions and solidarity groups should do more to help organise the immigrants and to defend their rights. But they should also continue to demand a more integrative policy on the part of the institutions. (María Caprile, CIREM Foundation)

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