The Global Mail has ceased operations.
People
<p>Photo by Eric Ellis</p>

Photo by Eric Ellis

An illegal worker tends vegetables.

The Stain On Spain

As Europe’s economic crisis puts pressure on the cost of everything, the squeeze is leading to potentially explosive conditions in south-eastern Spain, where illegal African immigrants slave for a pittance in Europe’s salad bowl.


LAST July 1, in a sweltering greenhouse in southern Spain, a black man from Africa was shot by a white man from Europe.

Allegedly.

The black man was Dinantou Barbosa, a 29-year-old from the impoverished West African state of Guinea-Bissau, one of as many as 100,000 Africans living and labouring illegally in the fruit and vegetable industry here, one of Europe's largest.

The white man who — allegedly — shot Barbosa was a Spaniard simply known as "Paco". He's the owner of a greenhouse where Barbosa had been working nine days straight, tending the vegetables Paco grows to sell to Europe's insatiable tables.

Barbosa was shot — allegedly — by Paco during a pay dispute. Barbosa had arrived at his workplace to get the 32-euro-a-day's wages Paco had agreed to pay Barbosa for his toil.

No matter that Spain's legal minimum daily wage is 45 euros, Paco told Barbosa he would pay him only 29 euros a day for nine days' grind under his plastic hothouse, in temperatures approaching 50 degrees.

Understandably Barbosa objected, and the two men argued. The ugly row ended when Paco — allegedly — pulled a shotgun on Barbosa and shot him in the legs. Barbosa then fled for his life.

<p>Photo by Eric Ellis</p>

Photo by Eric Ellis

El Ejido, capital of the plastic sea.

The reason we know all this is because the incident is documented in what's known in Spain as a denuncia, the formal condemnation of an individual, dating from the Franco dictatorship, that the police are compelled by law to investigate.

Barbosa survived his — alleged — shooting by Paco to tell his story to the Guardia Civil, Spain's national police. Or, more correctly, to relate it to someone who was officially allowed to tell the police about his — alleged — shooting. Barbosa couldn't do it himself because, as an illegal immigrant, he has no civil rights.

A copy of his two-page denuncia — numbered 2011-001360-00002730 — has been obtained by The Global Mail. It reads like an event that was commonplace in apartheid's diamond and gold mines, on the 17th century sugar plantations of Barbados, or in America's Deep South during the notorious slavery era.

Except it didn't take place in Vorster's South Africa, or on a Virginia tobacco plantation circa 1820 but — allegedly — less than a year ago in a key member state of the European Union, an EU which by its own charter is "committed to defending the universal and indivisible nature of human rights", a body that doesn't baulk at imposing sanctions on other nations — Burma, Syria, Zimbabwe — that it believes abuse its own high-minded ideals.

As a legal document, Barbosa's denuncia has many flaws, one presumes more than enough for a court to throw the case out in an instant.

But it opens a telling window onto one of Europe's dirty little secrets, its reliance on illegal foreign labour. And it also throws a harsh spotlight into the darker recesses of an industry that has thrived in a remote corner of the continent, where corruption and unlawfulness prosper largely unchecked in a cosy, conflicted and circular establishment embracing corrupt local government, the law, big business and a media that quickly condemns and closes ranks on prying outside eyes.

And it says something of Spain's evolution as a maturing democracy, not yet 40 years after the end of the Franco dictatorship, about its wobbly transition to the rule of law and how it copes as the buffer state between affluent Europe and impoverished Africa.

Barbosa's denuncia reveals much about the grossly unequal relationship between the tens of thousands of Africans who toil and live as virtual slaves of the Spanish vegetable plutocracy, of men like Paco who control a multi-billion-euro industry, a massively profitable business crucial to Europe's food security and one, if local labour activists can be believed, that's primed to boil over in racial angst.

The Barbosa shooting — allegedly — took place last July in a greenhouse in a district of El Ejido, the unofficial capital what Spanish proudly call Europe's Mar de Plastico.

El Ejido has more banks and Mercedes per capita than anywhere in Spain.

This 'sea of plastic' despoils an arid, 200-kilometre strip of Spain's Mediterranean coast, like Christo on steroids. The extent of the environmental impact is striking up close — a panorama of polyethylene as far as the eye can see that creates its own climate — but is breathtaking when viewed from space.

What appears at first to be a desert is, in tighter definition, a glaring patchwork of many thousands of greenhouses — planted with zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, capsicum and cucumbers ; the "Salad Bowl of Europe" as the industry also likes to style itself. Alongside them are the ancillary industries: factories making even more plastic, vast rubbish dumps of used synthetics, warehouses packing produce and the depots of trucks that ship it to supermarkets in all corners of Europe and beyond.

Thirty years ago, this was one of Europe's poorest regions. Today, the Almeria district's horticulture industry is regarded as an economic miracle, one of Spain's most important industries in what has become one of its wealthier regions. El Ejido has more banks and Mercedes per capita than anywhere in Spain. It's an industry controlled by a handful of hugely wealthy local families, who have bankrolled chosen local politicians into influential mayoraltys and local councils that pass favourable laws, or have looked the other way when it matters.

But it's one that would not have become so but for the labour of the millions of Africans, most of them illegal, who've passed through these hothouses with official connivance over the years.

What one can't see with Google Earth are the thousands of immigrants labouring on any given day under the plastic, often in temperatures reaching 55 degrees at the height of summer. Many do so without any provision of water or food by the owners. Workers are often sprayed with the chemicals and pesticides that owners deploy to protect their crops, used and abused for a pittance, which is still more than they might earn back home, if there were a job to go to there.

And when they are done with their day's toil, they go home, exhausted, often to a slum they rent and share with scores of other men, only to front up the next day and do it all again. And they do it for an average 30 euros a day, if the hothouse owner agrees to pay them.

According to Spitou Mendy, a Senegalese labour activist in nearby Roquetas de Mar, the labour equation that a typical Spanish farmer makes here is "an African one". The farmer knows, Mendy says, that countries such as Mali and Guinea-Bissau are among the world's poorest nations. He also knows that many of the Africans drawn here do so invisibly, without official papers or status. The owner also knows that despite Spain's dire economic crisis, which has seen unemployment of 35 to 40 per cent in the suddenly struggling Almeria region, few jobless Spaniards will work in the hothouse for "African wages".

The owner's cost structures would oblige him to pay a fellow Spaniard the legal minimum wage of 45 euros for an eight-hour day, along with other entitlements. But provide those conditions to an illegal African and the industry's costs suddenly shoot up. And, in the supermarkets of places like Rotterdam, Stuttgart, Leeds and Lille, that could mean more expensive food at a time when Europe can afford it the least.

<p>Photo by Eric Ellis</p>

Photo by Eric Ellis

Bathroom or laundry? Both.

Spain also has some of Europe's most cumbersome labour laws, and employers here have long grumbled about the productivity issues of hiring workers with effective jobs-for-life who can be legally difficult to shift. Illegal Africans are sought and employed in places like El Ejido and Almeria because they provide the horticulture industry with the labour mobility it craves, without too many strings when authorities look the other way, particularly in tight communities — when the authorities can be your cousins.

The majority of Spanish hothouse moguls are not barbarians, insists Mendy, but Spain's economic crisis has heightened the pressure on the industry to bring production costs down even further, as cheaper new suppliers develop crops elsewhere. That means that even rudimentary employment agreements with African workers are being dishonoured or torn up by unscrupulous owners.

Mendy fears further outbreaks of Spanish-on-African racial violence, which has flared here periodically. Potential flashpoints include rumours circulating the region now that Spanish banks are refusing African cash withdrawals. Mendy says this sort of thing, whether it's true or not, is "dynamite that the authorities need to be more aware of".

Mendy says that scenes like the one witnessed by The Global Mail in early April are commonplace: It plays out nearly every morning in hamlets like La Mojonera and Las Norias de Daza. Burly Spaniards in pickup trucks, the hothouse owners, park near village squares where Africans gather hopefully in the morning gloom. After a coffee, a cigarette and a gossip with fellow farmers, the hothouse owners move like judges in a beauty contest, picking out the Africans they deem to be sufficiently sturdy. Once chosen, they are corralled onto a truck's tray and driven off for a day's labour in their hothouses. Those who aren't selected set off on bicycles to solicit work at greenhouses elsewhere. Most times the workers get paid a day's rate but sometimes they do not, like when a ruthless owner declares at day's end that his customers didn't meet a bill, or when he scoots off home early and 'forgets'.

SOME workers have the verbal promise of regular work with an owner whom they tend to know by first name only, and rarely do the workers know his company's name. Dinantou Barbosa is one such worker.

As the translated denuncia describes, Barbosa "was working nine days in a greenhouse located in Las Norias de Daza, the property of a person named Paco, who the deponent said would pay him wages of 32 euros a day.

"At 1830 on July 1, 2011, the deponent went to Paco's greenhouse to collect the wages for the days worked. Paco told the deponent he would not pay him 32 euros as established but only 29 euros. The deponent and the afore-mentioned Paco began to argue over the facts," the denuncia describes.

"Then Paco grabbed a shotgun and started shooting at the deponent, impacting on his trousers. Another greenhouse worker with them rushed against the aforementioned Paco to stop him firing. The deponent left the place in fear."

“We are no different to the Spanish,” he says. “We get hot, we get tired, we get hungry and thirsty and sick just like they do when they work too much in these places.”

When contacted by The Global Mail, Barbosa related the details of the denuncia made on his behalf, adding that he regarded Paco as "a very bad man who must confront justice".

The Barbosa document is revealing at many levels about the sordid practices at the extremes of the horticulture industry here. Much of the labour toiling under El Ejido's plastic sea comes from North and West Africa; Morocco, Mali and Mauritania, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

These are some of the world's most economically depressed and most politically volatile states, prime ground for mass emigration. Guinea-Bissau, for example, has a GDP per capita of just USD537, or 1.47 a day. Since mutinous soldiers assassinated its president in 2009, Guinea-Bissau has endured three attempted or successful coups d'etat. Similarly in Mali, where a military junta briefly seized power last month, the GDP per capita is just USD777, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The immigrants to southern Spain from these broken nations are almost always male, from teenagers to men in their 60s. Many of the workers who labour in the Almeria and El Ejido region have arrived in Spain illegally, according to local labour activist Mendy, himself from Senegal. They are often transported to Spain on flimsy boats, known as pateras, across the Mediterranean in scenes that the erstwhile visitors to places like Australia's Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef might recognise. Organised human trafficking syndicates in Africa nations, sometimes working with associates in Europe, charge as much as 5,000 euros per labourer for the perilous trans-Med voyage, in effect their entire first year's wages — if they land a job when they get here.

The anecdotes these men exchange about their trans-continental voyages are horrendous. They tend to cross the Straits of Gibraltar, or to Spain's Canary Islands, under the cover of darkness, the dirtier the weather the better because it's deemed that then the Spanish Coast Guard is less likely to be out patrolling. Depending on how much the would-be immigrant has paid for his passage, these pateras can stop a few kilometres off the Spanish coasts to force their human cargo overboard, sometimes at gunpoint, directing them to swim toward Europe's bright lights.

Sometimes the illegals, known in idiomatic Spanish as espaldas mojadas, or wetbacks — the term mimics the vernacular for the Mexican illegal entries into the US across the Rio Grande border — don't make it. Their drowned bodies wash up on the shores of Spain's tourist-packed beaches. This patera invasion has reached alarming proportions in recent years, and Spanish authorities have since moved to shut it down, with mixed results.

But Spitou Mendy says that simply means that human traffickers find more inventive — and lucrative — ways to deposit their human cargo into Europe. Once ashore, the immigrants tend to make their way to the Almeria region on foot, sleeping rough in the day, so as to trek at night along routes through the mountain ranges that ring southern Spain. It can take weeks to walk to Almeria 400km away, and there are many Andalucian villagers and holidaying foreign villa owners who've answered night-time doorknocks from desperate, famished Africans.

MOROCCAN Mohammed El Hosni paid a human trafficker 3,000 euros to get across the Straits of Gibraltar to Almeria three years ago. Today, the 33-year-old tends zucchinis for 30 euros a day, going home to his family of five who live in a chabola outside La Mojonera.

<p>Photo by Eric Ellis</p>

Photo by Eric Ellis

A ‘kitchen’ in an El Ejido slum.

These crude chabolas are the hovels that punctuate the hothouse region here, and embarrass Spain. Fashioned from scavenged cardboard boxes and discarded plastic, they are erected by homeless Africans on abandoned plots or on land not yet turned into greenhouses. Water is brought in by bucket from nearby wells and stored in discarded pesticide containers. Cooking and heating is by bottled gas, the electricity lifted off the main grid by running illegal, fizzing wires.

But inside, Mohammed's three-roomed chabola is spotless. His cheery wife offers The Global Mail sweet mint tea as we sit on a rudimentary lounge suite fashioned from cardboard boxes and covered, like the earthen floor, in blankets. Mohammed is reluctant to talk in detail about his passage here, lest there be some sort of retribution by the criminal syndicates he paid to get to Spain. The only things he will say is that he doesn't have official papers, and that he came secreted in the hold of a boat which berthed at Barbate, Spain's tuna port, about 450km to the west, notorious in this part of Spain for its drug traffickers.

Mohammed says that no people should live like this, in these appalling chabolas, adding that if he'd known life in Spain would be this way, he would've had second thoughts about coming. But he'd seen returnees from Europe in his village back home flashing money and bling around, and the satellite TV shows beamed across the water show an El Dorado he's yet to experience. But there is one advantage to the chabolas, he smiles. They're rent-free.

IN A plot Kafka would recognise, as far as the Spanish state is concerned Dinantou Barbosa doesn't exist. So his complaint to the police about how his employer Paco — allegedly — shot him was made by someone who does, his friend and housemate Luis Bai Mendes. He's a 53-year-old man, also from Guinea-Bissau, who is legally allowed to be in Spain because he has an all-important Número de Identificación de Extranjeros, a foreign identity number. That means he can do things such as get a bank account, rent a house or buy a mobile phone SIM card.

There is much sharing of valuable access to Spain's formal infrastructure among the Africans. Sometimes near whole villages of able-bodied clansmen from Africa have assembled here, so a legal cousin with an NIE will act as proxy for his illegal relatives, sharing bank accounts or buying mobile phones in a familial honesty system.

Spitou Mendy claims the Africans are victims of racism, perhaps unsurprising in a part of the country that has traditionally been provincial and insular. He says it's also ignorance, adding that there are many places where Africans are not welcome — "not with a sign like in the old South Africa, but with that same attitude".

In the case of the Paco shooting, Mendes was legally able to avail of Spanish officialdom, so he made the denuncia against Paco for his housemate Barbosa. The denuncia pleased the activist Mendy, who is pressing his fellow Africans to speak out against abuses and pressure Spaniards into officially accepting what's going on here, and not to be afraid of losing jobs or being harassed. But such actions also expose issues that again underline what Mendy describes as the Africans' "legal invisibleness".

Enciso spent almost a year on remand after his arrest, running El Ejido council from inside his jail cell.

The Barbosa document identifies his hothouse owner-assailant simply as Paco. That's the Spain-wide nickname for a man with the Christian name of Francisco, one of the country's more common. There are literally thousands of Francisco/Pacos in Spain and Andalucia has more than most other regions. Judges require details that some conflicted police in these parts can be reluctant to find, when minded that horticulture has become a lifeblood industry that comprises about 80 per cent of the regional economy here, much of it in the hands of well-connected families who engage sharp-eyed lawyers to demolish flawed legal documents.

Because Barbosa was illegally employed, Spitou Mendy says, he was happy to have any sort of job. Knowing his employer's full name is a detail too far, for Barbosa and for many of the papers-less illegals.

But Paco seems to have made a crucial blunder. According to Mendy, he fled the area when he heard there'd been a denuncia made against him. As the Africans pressed the point, Mendy says Paco's lawyer called Barbosa with an offer to pay him 1,000 euros if he dropped the case.

The Global Mail inquired of the Guardia Civil about the Barbosa-Paco case. It took a week for it to respond, as we were bounced from office to office. Finally, its division in Almeria emailed to say the matter was before El Ejido's Court of Instruction, the first court of Spain's legal system usually tasked with investigating and mediating minor misdemeanours, often without lawyers present.

In his denuncia, Barbosa listed his address as Urbanizacion Fabrica de la Mujer 19 in El Ejido. That's part of a collection of slums lining a long track south of the town, a plastic canyon that runs through a thicket of hothouses growing nearly every imaginable salad vegetable.

Barbosa wasn't home when The Global Mail visited so we went to his neighbour at 22. It looks like an abandoned stable for animals. Power lines hang exposed and fizzing like electric spaghetti. There's a rudimentary outdoor well, where two semi-naked black men are washing clothes over rocks, and themselves.

Inside the house, I meet Sang Mendi from Gambia, in a bedroom he shares with four to eight men, depending who's on shift. Sang is a 32-year-old father from a town called Yuna, outside the Gambian capital, Banjul. He's worked in El Ejido for four years, also tending zucchinis. In good months here, Sang can earn 800 to 900 euros but he averages around 400 to 500 euros. He sends about half of his earnings back every month to his girlfriend, via a Moroccan agent who takes a 20-euro fee for the transfer. The Moroccan also runs an internet café, where Sang weekly Skypes his girlfriend and a son he hasn't seen in the flesh since he left Gambia in 2008. He says his earnings support about 40 family members back home.

Sang's story is typical of the Africans living in the slums around here. As many as 45 men share this house, for which they pay 420 euros a month rent to a Spanish owner who lives in faraway Andorra. The landlady provides nothing except the premises.

<p>Photo by Eric Ellis</p>

Photo by Eric Ellis

Workers prepare for another hard day’s work in the hothouses.

Impressive, educated and articulate, Sang has emerged as something of an advocate and counsel for his fellow workers, a natural leader of men. When his neighbour Barbosa told him that Paco's lawyer had called him to offer 1,000 euros to drop the shooting case, Sang advised him to refuse it. "I told him, no; I asked him if he thought our lives as black men in Europe was only worth 1,000 euros," Sang told The Global Mail. "I told him the case should go through to the court. This is Europe, this is supposed to be a democracy, a fair place, where justice is honest.

"We are no different to the Spanish," he says. "We get hot, we get tired, we get hungry and thirsty and sick just like they do when they work too much in these places." He himself has fallen ill after his workplace crops were sprayed with chemicals and growth enhancers. He had to visit a health centre, for which he, not his employer, paid the expensive consultation fees. "Yes, we earn more money here than in Gambia but things cost more, too," he says. "Europe is very expensive."

Sang insists he is no troublemaker and takes pride in his work, which is valued by his employer, a "good man" as he describes him. "This is very hard work, and very dangerous sometimes too," he says. Sang claims that men have died of heat exhaustion working under the hothouses and that conditions can be "inhuman".

BUT for how long can this continue?

The Global Mail asked the European Union's Commissioner for Home Affairs, Sweden's Cecilia Malmström, who has jurisdiction over immigrant labour issues in the EU, what she knew of the situation in the Almeria region.

Malmström's officer responded: "The Commission deplores and is particularly committed to fighting against all illegal practices entailing or leading to the exploitation of immigrants, regardless of their migratory status.

"It is critical to avoid exploitation of human beings in which irregular migrant workers face bad working conditions with low salaries, limited social protection, occasional dangerous work, bad accommodation, and social segregation.

"The EU wants to end the abuse and reduce the market for those who take advantage of vulnerable migrants, such as employers of irregularly-staying migrants. Abuses are inadmissible in terms of human dignity, but it is also important for the avoidance of unfair competition as well as for public acceptance of immigration and the successful integration of third-country nationals.

The majority of Spanish hothouse moguls are not barbarians, insists Mendy, but Spain’s economic crisis has heightened the pressure on the industry to bring production costs down even further, as cheaper new suppliers develop crops elsewhere.

"A first step was the adoption on 25 May 2009 of the Employer Sanctions Directive which prohibits the employment of illegally staying third-country workers and provides for sanctions for those who employ them. More specifically, it establishes a set of minimum common rules on sanctions and measures applicable in the Member States to the employers who do not respect this prohibition. Member States were obliged to transpose this instrument into their national legislation by July 2011.

"This legislation reduces the pull factor by targeting the employment of migrants who are staying irregularly in the EU, facilitates a better fight against the exploitation of irregularly staying, non-EU nationals and strengthens the legal security of all interested actors. It also brings positive effects in the form of reduced losses to Member State public finances, less pressure on working conditions and less distortion of competition between EU businesses."

At the big UK supermarket chain Asda, an offshoot of the US retailing giant Walmart, spokesperson Jo Newbould admits Asda "sources from Spain when we have gaps in the British growing season between October and May — taking supply of tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines and other salads and vegetables when it's difficult to grow them in the UK in the winter months, and melons and watermelons in the spring."

She says Asda has an office in Spain that "works closely with growers in the Almeria region,

"Having closer relationships with producers means that buyers have a stronger and more detailed understanding of the quality of the produce, as well as the ethical conditions of the sites we take supply from. Two of our Almeria team are local to the region themselves and have built up good working relationships with the growers over the years we've been working together. This is a big point of difference for us, and means we're in constant contact with the produce, the greenhouses and the growers themselves. As well as having a presence on site almost every day, our team conduct unannounced audits a number of times a year to ensure the growers we work with not only meeting the regulations, but exceeding them."

TO EXPLAIN something of how this region emerged exploiting its illegal labour under the nose of official Spain, it's instructive to examine the colourful career of one Juan Enciso.

He is El Ejido's Godfather figure, the popular alcalde, or mayor, of El Ejido for 20 years, representing the heirs to the Franco legacy, the Popular Party (PP) and their patrons. In Spain's municipal system, mayors wield much power and are highly-paid public officials controlling police forces and budgets running to hundreds of millions.

In 2009, Enciso was arrested as part of a major corruption investigation. The investigation, Operación Poniente, was pointedly handled by federal police out of Madrid, not locally, where Enciso had lifelong connections. The Poniente sting on Enciso was part of a Spain-wise series of corruption raids run from Madrid in the wake of the collapsing economy in 2008.

<p>Photo by Eric Ellis</p>

Photo by Eric Ellis

El Ejido’s notorious chabolas hovels.

It centred on the affairs of a network of companies linked to Enciso, his business associates and family members. The focus was an Enciso-linked company called El Sur — The South — whose offices neighboured Enciso's town hall and which outsourced municipal services, receiving as much as 40 per cent of his council's budget.

Bankrolled by local farmers, Enciso ran El Ejido as his personal fiefdom. Local journalists tell stories of how Enciso and his cronies would take over a favourite restaurant for a big lunch, request its doors be shut to other diners and spend the afternoon partying as they divided out the spoils. Enciso spent almost a year on remand after his arrest, reportedly running El Ejido council from inside his jail cell. He's now awaiting trial, accused of embezzling as much as 200 million euros, of money laundering and falsifying official documents.

Stories of his prolifigacy are legion around here. When he finally did step down as mayor in 2010, after being bounced from the PP, his replacement revealed there was a missing five million euros from Enciso's ill-fated bid to bring The Rolling Stones to El Ejido.  Another audit, according to a local journalist, revealed Enciso's council had acquired an expensive snow plough, this for a council in one of Europe's hottest regions, where the last snowfall in 30 years stayed on the ground for less than an hour.

SO IT'S LITTLE wonder then that the Almerian establishment doesn't much like it when outsiders ask embarrassing questions about their affairs. Such as February last year, when London's The Guardian newspaper published an investigation into the hothouse industry.

It was written by the newspaper's industry specialist, Felicity Lawrence, who has authored several well-regarded books about the global food industry and is an internationally-acknowledged industry expert. But not in the eyes of Almeria's local newspaper, La Voz de Almeria.

After The Guardian published its expose, La Voz de Almeria hit back with a feisty defence of the industry that help keeps it afloat, in a defensive response more akin to how Singapore's Straits Times or China's People's Daily defend their respective autocracies than might be expected of a newspaper in a notional European democracy. Local journalist David Jackson likened La Voz — a paper he describes as Pravda — as having an "editorial style lifted directly from the Iranian official press".

It was, by any measure, an extraordinary riposte. Industry leaders, tycoons, politicians and local journalists lined up to extravagantly condemn The Guardian, and Britain as well, for good measure. A front-page La Voz editorial said The Guardian feature should become an academic study "as a revelation of the manipulation of information, professionalism, secularism and stupidity.

"Claims that the conditions of work in the fields of Almeria are similar to those suffered by the slaves of the 16th century are an insult, not to the Almerian people, but to the intelligence of those who make these claims. These claims are so delirious that, as from now, all of its news reports are discredited by association," the editorial said.

María José Pardo Losilla, managing director of the industry lobby Hortyfruta, weighed in with a separate 1,056-word letter to the paper condemning the article and defending her patrons as lawful, ethical and high-minded. The Global Mail asked Hortyfruta via its website and Ms Losilla's Facebook page to respond to our own inquiries. We received no reply.

La Voz de Almeria 's coverage in particular reads as rather unhinged, particularly given that Lawrence had filmed and photographed her work, is not the first journalist to investigate the region's labour abuses and that even casual visitors asking around the El Ejido hothouses and the slums themselves could easily assess the situation themselves.

But perhaps the oddest rejoinder came from the La Voz de Almeria's editor-in-chief, Manuel León, who is also a self-styled local historian in Almeria.

In what could only have been seen as a good editorial idea at the time, León thought it appropriate to write and publish an open letter in his paper, to "Felicity," as he described The Guardian's Felicity Lawrence, a woman he has never met.

No matter that León is himself an author, in his letter he opines that "Felicity" can't be a very good mother if she abandons her children to write her best-sellers about the world's food industry. Imbued with sneer and scorn, León's letter describes Lawrence as a "filibusterer", a "redhead with an unreliable gaze", a prime example of "Perfidious Albion", all the while claiming, without evidence, that her journalism is subject to political influence. And then, in a bizarre flourish, León wonders if Lawrence is from London "or perhaps Birmingham?", seeming to suggest that in Spanish minds a Brummy is somehow a lesser mortal than a Londoner.

Lawrence told The Global Mail that she just laughed when she read León's column. She says not only has she never met him but "I've never been a redhead either." As for the rest of his claims, she snorts, "They are not real journalists; the paper's very existence is dependent on the support of the greenhouse industry."

The Global Mail asked La Voz de Almeria for Manuel León's contact details. He responded personally by providing his email address, to which we forwarded him a series of questions about his column and coverage. He refused to answer.

His paper hasn't yet reported the — alleged — shooting incident regarding Dinantou Barbosa and Paco either.

4 comments on this story
by Philip

Well done!, bully's and there associates and the EU and it's members need to wake up!
This article on the salad bowl has certainly taken the crunch out of my spanish cucumber!

April 17, 2012 @ 9:28am
Show previous 1 comments
by Peter

As i live in a quiet and relatively fair part of world, revelations like those in this story just amaze me. Such stories don't get reported much here, so good on the Global Mail for doing so.

April 17, 2012 @ 4:32pm
by Dennis Burt

This is just the sort of story we in the west need to read to understand the amount of exploitation taking place in Spain and no doubt elsewhere in Europe, thank you for a brilliant piece of journalism.

October 4, 2012 @ 4:35pm
by P Daly

What about the environment. The people put themselves there but the environment doesn't have a choice. It is being exploited.

October 3, 2013 @ 12:08pm
CLOSE
Type a keyword to search for a story or journalist

Journalists

Stories