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In Spain, Olive Oil Producers Are Stuck at the Center of the Immigration Debate

Spanish nationalists claim there are too many immigrants. If that's the case, why can’t farmers find enough to hire?

If you’ve ever wondered where most of the world’s olive oil comes from, it’s not Italy, or Greece. Definitely not California. It’s Spain: Specifically, it’s the southernmost region of Andalusia, a self-governing state of sorts, about the size of South Carolina. Covered in seas of olive trees—some of them over a thousand years old—this one region produces roughly a third of the olive oil on earth.


A 1200-year-old olive tree in Andalusia.

But it’s been in the news for other reasons lately. Andalusia is where, for the first time since Francoist Spain—a nearly 40-year dictatorship that ended in 1975—a far-right party has won regional seats. The party, called Vox, was just founded in 2014 and has been widely regarded as an eccentric minority—which is why its victory sent shockwaves through Spain and 5,000 people marching in protest. One of Vox’s running platforms—in addition to “men’s rights”—has been the deportation of Spain’s 52,000 undocumented immigrants: the backbone of its agricultural economy.


Vox has since set aside that goal to appease mainstream allies—but their anti-immigrant rhetoric hasn’t changed, and neither has the increasing support it’s garnered over the years, suggesting that nationalists and conservatives seem to think there are too many immigrants in Spain. And yet, the farmers we spoke to said they’re struggling to hire them. What gives?

If Spain is indeed taking in immigrants in record numbers—more than 57,000 in 2018, according to the International Organization for Migration—and they heavily look to agriculture for entry-level jobs, then why can’t employers find them?

It’s true that there are indeed unprecedented numbers of immigrants entering Andalusia: Due to its coastal location and proximity to Morocco, it has historically functioned as the gateway for North African immigrants to enter Spain and Europe at large.

But what 57,000 means compared to Spain’s population of 46 million—stats thanks to Spain’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística—is hard to gauge. Many immigrants journey northwards to other parts of the country or the EU, seeking industrial or service sector jobs, explains Almudena Martín. She’s an olive oil producer in the village of Mondrón, Andalusia, who farms on her family’s land. Despite other farmers’ difficulty in finding workers, she’s somehow managed to secure contracts to retain a consistent workforce year after year.


Maria José Bravo, on the other hand, hasn’t been so lucky. She’s an olive farmer and oil producer based in the tiny village of Ardales, also in Andalusia. With her father and brother, she produces single-estate olive oil for their company, Aceites de Ardales.


“It’s not easy to find labor,” she says, speaking through a translator. “It’s different people [working] each year.” A representative from DCOOP, the world’s single largest producer of olive oil, agrees.

The olive harvest is seasonal–October through February—so workers have to find other work for seven months of the year. Few come back if they can snag a year-round job elsewhere, Bravo explains. Not that she blames them.

“It's a hard job. It's cold, you have to move around, and people find other, more comfortable jobs,” she says.

We’re standing in olive groves in the middle of January harvest. Workers use electric prods to vibrate branches, causing olives to fall to the ground. It’s harder than it looks.


Olive harvest at Maria José Bravo's farm.

While harvesting machinery is relieving some of the need for workers, it’s also complicating things. “If you use fewer people, those people have to be more specialized because they need to know very well how to use the machines,” Bravo says. “So you have to be able to find a balance.” Specialized workers require more training and higher wages to retain—something that small farms with already strapped budgets might not be able to afford. Still, she concedes, difficulty in finding labor is one of the reasons the industry is using more and more machines.


Ayyub Elghzi is 27 and from Morocco. He has worked harvesting olives for three or four seasons.

Half of Bravo’s employees are Moroccan, many of them males in their twenties. One of them is Ayyub Elghzi, 27, who’s worked in olives for three or four years. Born in Morocco, he’s been in Spain for 17 or 18 years now. During the off-season, he’s managed to find other agricultural work and feels like there’s plenty of it.


“If you look for work,” he says, “You’ll find it. In other areas in Spain where I’ve been on vacation, I’ve felt some racism. But here, I feel respected.”

Elghzi and all the other employees are legally entitled to work here, Bravo says, so Vox’s proposed deportation wouldn’t be a threat. She doesn’t agree with the party’s policies, but she does feel that some type of governmental policy could be beneficial to farmers and workers. Something to make it easier for farmers to legally hire immigrant workers, and easier for immigrant workers to secure employment—before they land in Spain.


Elghzi machine-harvesting olives.

“People now in Morocco can find a job to work in the strawberry picking industry before they come,” Bravo says. “It should be the same for the olive industry. People in Morocco want to work. Here we have jobs for them. So they should be able to come. We should facilitate that. That’s my personal opinion.”

The expense and effort of finding workers is something that farmers in the United States are feeling too. In fact, difficulty in finding farm labor is a significant cause of food waste, crop scientist Dr. Sarah Taber asserts. Paradoxically, despite many farm workers being paid unlivable wages, sometimes it’s too expensive for farmers too hire them to harvest crops—it’s cheaper to let them die on the vine and tow them under. Hence, food waste.

Clearly, how farmers can afford to find and hire farm workers at ethical wages is a global issue. And while Vox’s deportation scare seems to be just that—a scare—it has put the spotlight on a problem that extends well beyond Spain.