Known as La Raya, the longest shared border within the European Union belongs to Spain and Portugal. On the Spanish side, drought in the farming areas of Andalusia and Extremadura has forced many agro companies to look westwards to the Beja region of southern Portugal, one of Europe’s most important water reserves.

Against this backdrop, authorities on both sides of the frontier are investigating Spanish contracting companies linked to trafficking networks and severe labour abuses. These companies allegedly cross La Raya to exploit farm workers.

A team of inspectors from Portugal’s Authority for Working Conditions has for months been on the trail of Spanish employers who move foreign workers from Spain. Toiling in extreme conditions, the workers grow garlic and other agricultural products in the Alentejo area of Portugal. 

The journalists involved in this IJ4EU-funded investigation accompanied a team of inspectors in the field as they monitored working conditions. The field visits came after the authorities identified both Spanish employers and workers of Romanian origin who had gone on the run.

Between 2018 and 2022, Portugal identified 637 victims of labour trafficking in the country. It launched more than 50 judicial investigations of large anti-trafficking operations in the countryside, according to the public prosecutor’s office.

Despite the drought, agriculture has become big business in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. In recent years, investment in agricultural land by large funds has been on the rise, with a tenfold increase in the number of investors buying farmland, according to data provided by consultancy firm CBRE.

But while the agribusiness sector is booming, so too is labour exploitation in farming areas.

Video by Cristina Cartelle, Andrei Stefan Balog, Lucía Muñoz Lucena and Sergio Rodrigo

Spanish companies are not only moving to Portugal because there is water, but also because workers are paid less, migrant groups say. According to the Spanish Ministry of Labour, seven out of 10 inspections have uncovered fraudulent practices.

Between January and May 2023, authorities carried out more than 32,500 labour inspections on Spanish farms, around 47 percent in Andalusia. Over the last half-decade, almost 3,000 people were identified as victims of labour exploitation and/or trafficking in Spain.

The journalists accompanied the Guardia Civil’s special Roca unit in Almeria, where it conducts search operations in the greenhouses of Almeria, one of the areas most marred by labour exploitation due to the high number of farms.

In October 2023, “La Raya” won Spain’s Andalusian Social Journalism Prize.

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