In the vicinity of the Logroño bus station, there are no longer young temporary workers wandering the streets waiting to be subcontracted. They are not seen sleeping on the street, nor are there any vans arriving to look for gangs of grape pickers. This is the unusual photograph of the second vintage campaign marked by the pandemic. The absence of these workers, largely young people of foreign origin, is repeated in the four shelters promoted by the Riojan regional government and local administrations. At the Alfaro, Nájera, Fuenmayor and Logroño facilities, at half their capacity in the best of cases, nobody expected it. And while they wonder what is happening, the grape is either picked or passed. The Rioja denomination of origin includes, in addition to the homonymous community, a part of Navarra and to the south of Álava, the Rioja Alavesa.
The vintage ‘mafia’: semi-slavery with a designation of origin
The almost total disappearance of Temporary Work Companies (ETTs) and subcontractors, mostly of Portuguese origin, is something that the police forces that are dedicated to investigating groups that offer work to temporary workers in semi-slavery conditions have perceived this year . “The pandemic has reduced cross-border travel and mobility. There has been a major slowdown [en todos los delitos]. But I think he will recover and what happened before the pandemic will return ”. This is clearly seen by the second lieutenant of the Organic Unit of the Judicial Police (UOPJ) of the Civil Guard in Navarra, Óscar Silva, who estimates that these groups will return to operate with the gradual recovery of normality.
The greater control to ensure compliance with the sanitary protocols in the harvest has not only led to the prevention of outbreaks in the current campaign and in the past, when only 2% positivity was registered in more than 1,700 tests carried out. It has also caused a major transformation that becomes more pronounced this year, with the paradox that mobility restrictions have been ebbing. For days no one has appeared at the facilities managed by the Red Cross in Nájera and Fuenmayor, in La Rioja Alta. In the best of cases, they have barely received between 1% and 2% of the people housed in previous years. “All the devices were prepared with last year’s protocols. And what has been our surprise that the influx of seasonal workers has dropped to a figure that we did not expect ”, says Ana Arnáez, head of social services of this entity. In a normal year, both shelters have each responded to a maximum of 170 people in the 21 days that they remain open.
Nor did they expect it in Logroño. In fact, the device enabled by the city council in a municipal sports center has increased its seats by fifty more on this occasion, reaching 150. Only in recent days, shortly after closing its doors on October 14, have they managed to complete the capacity. In the days of less demand they have come to occupy half and this is something that is not remembered having lived in previous years. For the councilor for Social Services and Community Development in the council, Iván Reinares, there are multiple causes of the “substantial” reduction in grape pickers, also of those in an irregular administrative situation who arrive without having been previously hired. Among them, he points out, there is greater control and coordination between administrations. This is something that, he estimates, discourages the presence of subcontractors. “All parties are doing our job better. COVID-19 has helped this as well. The sanitary situation to achieve a safe harvest brought to the surface a situation of seasonal workers that people did not know ”, he considers.
In this sense, the UGT union also points out, one of the first to begin to denounce the presence of groups that operate as mafias since 2016. According to Carlos Alfaro, general secretary of UGT-FICA in La Rioja, it is also penetrating farmers the message for them to directly hire crews. This greater awareness in employers, together with the vigilance carried out by the Labor Inspectorate to bring out submerged employment, as well as the control of prevention services over health protocols, he considers, has ended up not making intermediaries and intermediaries interesting. the ETT the harvest campaign.
The big problem is that they themselves do not know that they are victims
Óscar Silva, second lieutenant of the UOJP of the Civil Guard
But the “mafias” have not disappeared from the map entirely. In a bar in a town located on the Ribera del Ebro, several groups of seasonal workers usually have breakfast. Some of them almost finished their work without seeing a single euro. According to Jesús Ceras, general secretary of the CCOO Agrifood Federation in Navarra, the intermediary of Portuguese origin who subcontracted them for a large company in the area left without paying them. The intermediary took more than 60,000 euros. The workers went to the employer to claim the promised payroll and the matter was resolved with him paying the debt and without complaint. In the municipality everyone knows each other and comments on what happened with the owner who gives them the coffee. But they prefer not to discuss it with the authorities. “The big problem is that they themselves do not know that they are victims,” says UOPJ’s second lieutenant in Navarra, Óscar Silva, who recognizes the great difficulty of these people going to a police station aware of their rights.
“In the inspections we do, they are instructed. The company imposes on them what they must answer on the amounts they charge. And, of course, it is never true ”, abounds. Until this Friday, according to data from the Civil Guard in La Rioja, a score of inspections have been carried out. The agents have contacted 167 workers of different nationalities in which their rights are explained to them.
The impulse of mechanization and bureaucratic obstacles
While the special devices for the most vulnerable seasonal workers are closing down, the harvest is moving north with 270,000 kilos of grapes harvested. This volume represents more than half of the expected production for the 11,000 farms spread throughout the territory.
“Before in La Rioja it was the grape harvest festival. Now is the ordeal of the grape harvest ”. This is how Nestor Alcolea, secretary of Organization in the Union of Small Farmers (UPA) in the territory, portrays the consequences of the labor shortage. Not infrequently does the phone ring for this entity with calls from winegrowers asking for crews to hire. They are those who cannot mechanize their vineyards, as more than 40% of the farms have already done. In fact, during the past season, farmers definitely opted to resort to harvesters that have come to stay, at least in those cases where the vines are organized on trellises, support or bars that guide and drive the vine plant. The problem is, however, for those who cultivate in glass -traditional system without this type of conduction-, and it is these entrepreneurs who, on occasions, are seeing their crops endangered.
This is the first year that the phone of the Red Cross worker Ana Arnáez also rings while she works in the shelters in Nájera and Fuenmayor. He assures that no farmer had ever called him before asking where to hire crews. Something quite different, he says, happened last year. And it is that while the harvesters entered the farms, not a few seasonal workers left without working. “This runs like wildfire and, between them, ‘word of mouth’ works,” he explains.
The decision to mechanize agricultural work does not only lie in the low costs derived from labor and in the speed that the combine guarantees. According to Alcolea, the obligation to offer accommodation to seasonal workers who do not reside in the community is one of the main reasons. “The reality that we live in La Rioja, and in general in the Ribera del Ebro, is that there is no accommodation available for the seasonal workers who come. And there is the paradox that a farmer cannot hire a worker because he does not have accommodation during the five or six days that the harvest lasts ”, he abounds. In this sense, from their organization they insist on requesting to the administrations a public-private network of shelters available so that the winegrowers can offer a roof to the itinerant seasonal workers.
In a harvest campaign prior to the pandemic, the volume of seasonal hiring ranges between 5,000 and 7,000. From the agrarian employers’ association ARAG-Asaja, its general secretary Igor Fonseca, estimates that this year the reduction is around 20%, above the previous campaign. In this sense, Fonseca has been criticizing the administrative procedures for registering a temporary worker for some time. “We have counted up to 20 different procedures to hire a single worker. Any slippage or administrative imperfection can lead to significant penalties ”, he assures. And the risk of losing a single day of grape ripening is something that the farmer cannot afford. This circumstance, he adds, together with the sanitary protocols, has given the definitive impulse to the mechanization of agricultural campaigns. In the middle of this, he points out to the Labor Inspectorate, which he accuses of focusing on small and medium-sized entrepreneurs and not on intermediaries who do not register seasonal workers, or offer accommodation or pay below the agreement.
Evaluating the causes of the reduction of these workers is something that the different administrations involved in one of the most important campaigns in the country will analyze from November. However, Fonseca does warn that, specifically, intermediaries that operate irregularly continue to exist: “What we would like is for the efforts of the State Security Forces and the Ministry of Labor to focus on ending this type of mafias and not in persecuting the farmer for minor administrative deficiencies ”.