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Spaniards return to farm work as unemployment soars

Lepe — Beneath rows of plastic sheeting that dot a swathe of Andalucian countryside, Spaniards are back at work as seasonal farm labourers, a role they had left to immigrants during a decade-long boom that ended last year.

Allal Nejjaria, a foreman at a 70-hectare (173-acre) strawberry farm operated by the Agromartin cooperative at Lepe near the Portuguese border, said he is hiring locals this year instead of recruiting almost all his seasonal workers abroad as he did in the past.

"For the 2008 season we hired around 600 seasonal workers, of which 95 percent were recruited in their home countries," he said as he walked through the dirt paths between the strawberry fields and peach trees.

This year he predicts 40 percent of all seasonal workers will be locally hired, either Spaniards or foreigners already legally residing in the country.

With the unemployment rate soaring in Spain at one of the fastest paces in Europe, the pattern is being repeated in farms across the Andalucian province of Huelva, one of the world’s largest producers of strawberries.

"The hiring of workers in their home countries has dropped significantly because we are employing more local workers," said Luisa Cornejo, the local representative of Spain’s Union of Small Farmers.

Of the 60,000 seasonal farm labourers expected to be hired this season in Huelva, only 15,000 will be recruited abroad, half the amount hired outside of Spain last year, according to official data.

The unemployment rate in Andalucia, whose sandy beaches attract millions of sunseekers every year, hit 21.85 percent at the end of 2008, well above the national rate of 13.9 percent, the highest rate in the European Union.

"There are a lot of people who worked in construction or in the service sector who want to return to the fields," said Aurora Martinez, a local representative of CCOO, Spain’s largest trade union confederation.

Jacobo Palanco, a 23-year-old father, is one of them.

He began working in construction when he was just 16 and even set up his own firm. But now that construction jobs have tried up, toiling in the Andalucian countryside has become an attractive option.

"Things became difficult at the end of last year," he said at the packaging workshop of the farm where he is employed with his wife, brother and sister-in-law.

Spaniards’ renewed interest in seasonal farm work is bad news for the foreigners from Morocco or Eastern Europe who depended on the backbreaking jobs to support their families back home.

Hundreds of migrants who flocked to Jaen province, the heart of Spain’s olive-growing region, from across the country in December to harvest the fruit were forced to sleep outdoors after they found most of the jobs were taken this year by unemployed Spaniards.

Local officials set up emergency shelters, bread lines and even provided free bus tickets in some cases so the disappointed migrant job seekers could return home.

For those lucky to have been recruited abroad this year, the seasonal work remains a lifeline.

Aicha Farhi, a 34-year-old mother from Casablanca who was working for her second straight season at the Agromartin farm, earns 36.5 euros (47.2 dollars) per day in Spain, compared to between 5.5 and 6.0 euros that she earned in Morocco working as a housecleaner.

"Thanks to the last harvest, I could support my entire family, my sick husband and my three children, up until the current campaign," said Farhi, who wore a headscarf and a hat as she removed branches from picked fruits.

In 2000, at the height of Spain’s building boom and before farms started to recruit seasonal workers abroad, the boss of Agromartin, Jose Antonio Martin, was forced to leave strawberries to rot in the field because he could not recruit workers.

He does not regret hiring Spaniards who in recent years had shunned seasonal farmwork.

"I have to show solidarity with my people," he said.

Fabien Zamora/AFP/Expatica