Francois Perri / REA / Redux

Advocates say EU loophole leaves Latin American workers in legal limbo

Ecuadorean workers living in campground without running water say they earn less than minimum wage

CHANAS, France — Along the banks of the Rhône river, just off of France’s “highway of the sun” that runs past legendary expanses of grape and lavender fields, a parade of battered vans pulls up to a gated campground obscured by pine trees. Dozens of Latin Americans pile out, back from another long day sorting fruit harvested from the many orchards that dot the southern region’s rolling landscape.

Marcia Fiel perches on a boulder near the camp entrance, rapidly texting friends in her native Ecuador and talking with coworkers to debrief after spending the day inside Métral Fruits, the distribution facility that employs her and another hundred Latin American migrants who also call this campground home. Behind her, cars head up the hill into the sleepy French village Chanas, about an hour south of Lyon.

Though they work in France, the Spanish company Terra Fecundis employs Fiel and her colleagues. The temporary contract agency delivers on-demand migrant labor, mostly from Latin America, to farmers throughout Spain and France. The nearby vans shuttle workers like Fiel into Chanas, home to approximately 2,300 people, six days a week to sort fruit for 10 to 12 hours a day. “Sometimes we only have a 15-minute break when we’ve worked all day,” Fiel said.

And coming home to the campground isn’t exactly relaxing: “There’s a lot of people living together in a small space, and that’s difficult,” Fiel said. She and her colleagues live, quite literally, in the middle of a forest. “The worst is that we don’t have water,” Fiel said as a group of several women walk up the hill to the hamlet, toting empty plastic jugs.

Marcia Fiel moved to Spain from Ecuador in 2000.
Maggy Donaldson

Fiel left Ecuador for Spain in 2000, leaving behind a life that included six children and her now ex-husband. Terra Fecundis deploys her to fruit-sorting facilities and vineyards throughout Spain and France — “wherever there’s work,” she said, her round cheeks giving way to a grin.

Founded in Murcia, Spain in 2000 by three entrepreneurs then in their mid-20s — Celedonio Perea, Juan Jose Lopez and Antonio Francisco Lopez — Terra Fecundis has evolved from an inspired start-up to a growing force in French agriculture. The Lopez brothers first conceived of the business after a summer stint harvesting apples and pears in France, positing that a mobile and flexible agricultural employment pool for farmers could prove profitable. And since European Union legislation allows companies to operate across borders, the Lopez’s, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, were able to realize their ambition.

Terra Fecundis reports it employs up to 4,000 contract workers annually. Anyone can apply to work for agencies like this one, but they primarily recruit migrants who might otherwise find securing employment difficult. In the case of Terra Fecundis, most workers, like Fiel, come from Ecuador.

Latin American workers are commonplace in American agriculture, but are growing in significance in Western Europe as well. This migration pattern evolved thanks to Spanish immigration policies that allow Latin Americans to move with relative ease to Spain, especially from Ecuador.

The South American nation suffered a severe economic crisis in the late ‘90s, prompting mass emigration to the United States, but also to Spain. By 2000, more than 7,000 Ecuadoreans per month were arriving to the Iberian Peninsula. Fiel was one of them.

She, like most of these migrants, traveled without a visa thanks to a 1963 bilateral agreement that allowed Ecuadoreans to live in Spain for up to three months as “tourists.” Tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans overstayed their visas, using Spain as a gateway to Europe. In the early 2000s Spain regularized more than 400,000 of these migrants — today, Ecuadoreans need an entry visa before coming to Spain.

After obtaining the right to work legally, many simply found low-level employment in Spain, but the growth of temporary contract agencies facilitated transnational labor migration, which is how Fiel found herself in Chanas. Once in Spain, workers employed by contract agencies like Terra Fecundis obtain employer-sponsored temporary visas allowing them to work anywhere in the EU, as long as they remain under the wing of the agency.

Terra Fecundis employees in France work mostly in the south, the country’s fabled cornucopia. Most of these laborers have few resources and feeble French skills. As is the case in Chanas, they generally live in remote areas with extremely limited mobility.

There’s one disco in the village, around the corner from the lone grocery store and adjacent to the restaurant. These three venues, plus the town hall and a bakery, comprise the downtown. Recently, Chanas’ sole supermarket closed early, so the owners could use the space to throw their granddaughter a birthday party.

Fiel said sometimes on Saturday night she goes out on the town with others from the campground. Chanas’ club scene is akin to a middle school dance by Ecuadorean standards, but Fiel calls it “a good time,” albeit with an amiable eye roll. “Sometimes they play music from our country, and we dance until 2 a.m,” she said.

The language barrier is the number one issue most Ecuadoreans in France struggle with. But Fiel said life got easier, “once I was with other immigrants from my country.”

Contracting with Terra Fecundis actually leaves farmers liable for more than the French minimum wage they would otherwise pay. It frees them, though, from administrative burden, including recruitment, payroll, social security, health care and lodging. Terra Fecundis manages those details, charging an hourly rate of 14 to 16 euros ($15.50 to $17.70), almost double the French minimum pay of just over 9.50 euros ($10.50) per hour.

French farmers are willing to pay a premium in exchange for time, said Stéphanie Prat, a legal scholar focused on labor issues for France’s National Federation of Fruit Producers (FNPF). She said managing the administrative side of hiring takes far more effort than farmers can spare. “Our poor little farmer?” It’s just one part of his job,” she said in her Paris office. “He clearly doesn’t have time to deal with all of the paperwork.”

Ecuadorean workers reported earning little more than 7 euros ($7.80) hourly, though they technically should receive French minimum wage. Because middlemen businesses like Terra Fecundis are private and foreign, ensuring wages and labor-related benefits for workers in France remains a challenge, especially because Spain rarely sends labor inspectors.

“On an ethical level, it’s not great,” Prat said. Many farmers tell her that this is the only way they can stay in business, a last resort. But she said “there’s a category who says, ‘Too bad, I’m going to do the maximum so that things go well for me.”

Because it’s a Spanish company that sends temporary workers across borders,regulatory loopholes at the European Union level allow Terra Fecundis to dodge stricter French labor standards in favor of more lax Spanish salary and social security requirements, essentially because there’s no office in France. When workers in France are far from labor inspectors in Spain, it’s easy to exploit them, demanding excessively long work days or unpaid overtime, for example.

When it comes to labor relations, Jean-Yves Constantin of France’s Democratic Confederation of Labor, one of the country’s major labor unions, said companies like Terra Fecundis are “completely destroying and deregulating the labor market,” widening the gap between employers and their workforce. He laments the “California-nization” of French agricultural traditions. “We were peasants, living in the country. But now we are abandoning that rural world, replacing it with enterprises, in the framework of an ultra-liberal economy,” Constantin said. “The businesses aren’t human, they’re economic. Period.”

Both an EU directive passed in 2014 and a subsequent French national law intend to raise the bar. The French legislation aims to diminish “unfair social competition,” obliging companies like Terra Fecundis to designate a representative based in France to uphold labor conditions and adequate accommodation for those workers dispatched to France. The initiatives are in their infancy, however, and whether employers and companies are actually held accountable according to these laws remains unclear.

Despite the difficulties, obtaining double nationality and staying in Europe is a goal of many Ecuadoreans working in France, including Fiel. If she received Spanish nationality she could theoretically find work doing something else — in Ecuador, she studied law. Becoming a citizen would enable her to work anywhere in the European Union, without the constraints of a temp agency. She hasn’t submitted naturalization papers yet, but she would nominally qualify. Ecuadoreans who have held a residence permit in Spain for two years can apply, but the process often drags on for years.

With dual nationality she could also bring her teenage son to live with her. After paying for the basics — rent, food and her phone — she sends the rest of her income to him. “For his books, clothes, food — everything,” she said.

“Every now and then I get sad, because my family is far away,” she said. “But oh well,” she added quickly, her broad smile returning. “I’ll go to work, make money, and someday visit Ecuador.”

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