The Burdens on Spain’s Immigrant Laborers

During the summer of 2015, I found myself in the small town of Vic, Spain, located about an hour north of Barcelona in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. Though Vic has many sights worth seeing including Roman ruins and a large central plaza, I spent most of my time in a part of town known as “Vic Dos” or “Vic Two.” This part of town was completely different from the rest of Vic. Here, it seemed like everyone I met was a first-generation immigrant from either Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, or India, and everyone worked in one of the meat processing factories located on the outskirts of town.

Those that I met were undoubtedly grateful for the work, but I heard many stories of poor, racist treatment of these workers by the “bosses.” Work started very early in the morning, and often went well past the agreed ending time. The work is brutal and dangerous, with bosses expecting workers to butcher 700 pigs per hour, ten to twelve hours per day, six (or seven, if the bosses need you) days per week. Injuries occur all the time and can often constitute the grounds for immediate termination. Rampant racism abounds, with racial slurs and violent threats just becoming part of everyday life for workers. Pay is around 800 euros ($945) per month with deductions for materials and laundry. The facts are sickening, but the bosses get away with it because migrants without citizenship have very few rights in Spain. The workers I met came to Spain in hopes of a better life and a greater ability to provide for their families, but many told me they preferred life in their home country.

I returned to Barcelona in 2019 for my studies, and I made a point to visit Vic every weekend. A good friend of mine, who is also a first-generation Ghanaian immigrant, allowed me to stay with him on Saturday nights. As I went to sleep, he always made sure that his phone was nearby. While Sunday was his day off, he told me that he half expected a call from the bosses anytime during the night, telling him that he was needed at the factory on Sunday. Often, the call came around 4 AM. I asked him what would happen if he asserted that Sunday was his day off and did not go to work. He told me that wasn’t an option since he would be fired immediately.

Abhorrent treatment of migrant laborers is not unique to Vic. During the time I spent in the Valencian Community, I heard first-hand accounts of workers—usually from Senegal or Mali—who lost their jobs picking Valencia’s namesake oranges due to blatant racism. Last December, The Guardian reported that 21 warehouse workers in Murcia were rescued by Spanish police after being hidden in a secret room by warehouse managers. The workers were paid two euros ($2.36) per hour and were working in terrible conditions, featuring a “total absence of occupational safety and hygiene measures.”

A relative abundance of immigrant labor in Spain allows for employers to pay their workers very little and quickly replace anyone who is injured, ill, or doesn’t behave, without missing a beat. Though awareness of migrant labor mistreatment has increased in recent years, changes in Spanish labor law must follow. It is about time that employers realize they cannot violate basic notions of respect and decency towards workers, no matter the location, the industry, or who your workers are.

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Immigration Law, Spain