Cheap Asian workers flock to Portugal’s farms | Business | Economic and financial news from a German perspective | DW


They look like chained prisoners in a labor camp when they set off early in the morning to fields, greenhouses and vineyards near the central Portuguese town of Almeirim – migrant workers from Asia to whom the foreman assigns their daily work.

Indians prune vines, Thais pick raspberries, which are also exported to Germany, Nepalese harvest broccoli for Great Britain and Pakistanis harvest sweet potatoes for France.

There are said to be more than 3,000 farm workers in this region alone, according to estimates by civil rights organizations, probably well over 30,000 across Portugal. Most of them are semi-legal in the country and are still waiting for their Portuguese papers. They live in inhumane conditions, often work more than 10 hours a day and are brutally exploited by dubious temporary employment agencies that place them on farms.

“The Asians have arrived here since 2018,” says the social worker Catia Sequeira from the NGO Proabracar, which looks after the migrants in Almeirim and helps them with documentation.

In the past, Asian workers were mainly lured to the Alentejo region in southern Portugal, home to booming berry cultivation. Today they are everywhere – the growing popularity of Portugal’s agricultural exports has only fueled the appetite of local businesses for cheap labor.

The number of illegal migrants has grown steadily, says Sequeira.

Human trafficking mafias

The Portuguese authorities only became aware of the problem last year when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. It was decided to legalize all those who could prove three months of paid work and social security contributions.

That didn’t solve the problem, however: it took the Portuguese immigration police months, often up to a year, to examine the applications. Some of the applicants lived in residential containers or were crammed into shabby houses, forced to rely on mafia employment agencies.

In Portugal, the agricultural sector is booming again, leading to a greater need for migrant workers

“On the one hand, the pandemic was a blessing because it made legalizations possible,” Sequeira told DW. “On the other hand, human dramas are still going on.”

A 31-year-old man from Kerala in southern India named Arjun Joshy knows this all too well. The trained automotive engineer came to Portugal in July 2019 – initially on a tourist visa because he wanted to travel to Europe.

At Lisbon airport, he was immediately caught by an employment agency. Joshy paid him 1,350 euros, for which he should get work and papers.

After a few months he gave up picking berries in the south; he was earning a little over 200 euros a month and was still waiting for his papers.

“I got sick, but it turned out that I was not registered with the health department. I had to pay 800 euros out of pocket for the treatment,” he said.

Cheap work slaves

Joshy worked briefly as a driver. “Then COVID came and I sat desperate and unemployed at home for seven months,” he told DW – until a Portuguese helped him to register and get the necessary documents.

“All of this only cost around 100 euros,” says Joshy, who has now even set up a small auto repair shop.

Joshy plans to return to his engineering roots one day; He dreams of setting up a startup in the field of hybrid engines “in a few years, when I’ve saved enough and all the documents are finally recognized and in order.”

Arjun Joshy in front of his workshop in Portugal

Arjun Joshy has managed to open a small auto repair shop in Portugal

Most immigrants are less fortunate. Officially, they work for the state-guaranteed minimum wage of around 600 euros, but have to pay their employer accommodation, transport to work and even food. As a result, they often only have 10 euros or less per working day, Joshy tells DW.

Many of his compatriots paid the human trafficking mafia more than 10,000 euros to fulfill their dream of a better life in Portugal. Even if they do manage to become legally resident, they will not be able to escape the vicious circle thanks to the huge loans they have taken out to pay the traffickers.

“Your dream has turned into a nightmare,” said Joshy.

Escape from unemployment

The success of Portuguese agriculture in recent years has become its bane. As the country exports more berries and vegetables, the demand for cheap labor has increased.

“But the Portuguese no longer want to do this job,” says farmer Vitor Jorge.

That’s why he had to hire Asians on his farm near the central Portuguese town of Torres Vedras. Seven Nepalese workers are currently harvesting broccoli there. The harvest brings good money abroad.

Farmer Vitor Jorge, Portugal

Farmer Vitor Jorge has invested a lot to make life more bearable for his migrant workers

“Everything is legal here,” assures the farmer. “The workers get the minimum wage. They are all registered.”

For their accommodation, which he provides free of charge, Jorge has even renovated old farm buildings on his farm. The residence with rather simple rooms with bunk beds and a communal kitchen is not entirely legal, however. The “apartments” are not certified as they should be.

“What should I do,” said Jorge. “The employment office cannot get me any Portuguese, and the housing regulations are far too bureaucratic and cannot be adhered to on an old farm.”

Ranjan Dahal doesn’t care. The Nepalese who pick broccoli in Jorge’s field only started work there three days ago.

“I’ve been in Portugal for a year and I’m delighted to have found this job,” he said.

He previously worked for one of the notorious temporary employment agencies and collected raspberries in the south.

“I had to share a small house with 15 others, there were always problems, including with regard to payment.”

Without a job in Nepal, Dahal came to Portugal to support his family at home. And instead of sleeping on the floor, the 29-year-old now sleeps in at least one of the bunk beds on Jorge’s farm.

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