Bitter Harvest in Spain's Olive Country

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PICKED LAST: Hostels and shelters are overcrowded due to a surplus of unemployed migrants

Passing beneath banners that proclaim the Andalusian region the "olive oil capital of the world," the African men each carry a plastic bag containing their belongings and a sheet of cardboard to serve as a bed. Their destination is the Santa Clara convent, which has lately turned some of its rooms into a makeshift dormitory. The shelter doesn't open until 10 p.m., but if the men don't arrive early, they won't get a space on the floor for the night.

For miles outside the town of Jaén, olive trees cover the hills in neat lines. But this year's harvest, which started on Dec. 1, has brought another, more troubling, queue to town: the bread line. Each night, immigrants in search of once plentiful seasonal work find themselves forced to gather outside the city shelter to wait for a hot meal and, if they're lucky, a bed. "I've been working the olive harvest for the past six years," says Abdullah N., 
 a Moroccan migrant who preferred not 
 to give his last name. "But this year, 
 nobody's hiring foreigners." (See pictures of the world's harvests.)

For the 9,000 or so migrants who have come to the province (also called Jaén) looking for work, the problem lies not with the harvest, which is thriving, but with the economy, which is not. For more than a decade, Spanish olive growers have relied on migrants willing to beat branches and collect fallen fruit; last year they made up roughly 15% of the seasonal workforce, according to Andrés Bódalo, a representative of the Andalusian Workers' Syndicate. Yet thanks to a looming recession that has pushed unemployment to more than 11%, those migrants are finding the jobs have gone to newly out-of-work locals, who are only too happy to collect $72 for the back-breaking job of collecting olives.

The situation isn't unique to Jaén, or even to Spain. Across Europe until recently, foreign laborers were the backbone of industries such as construction and hospitality. But as the economy has stuttered, unemployment among migrants has risen — by 67% over the past year in Spain. So grim has the outlook become that the Spanish government has initiated a program that essentially pays out-of-work migrants to go home. "It's not that anyone has anything against the migrants," says Bódalo. "But if you're an olive farmer and your cousin or your neighbor comes up to you and says, 'I need the work; put me on the squad,' you're going to go with the person you know." (See pictures of immigrant workers in America.)

Papa, 22, is from Senegal and has lived in Spain for a year. He had heard that growers weren't hiring foreigners this year. "But it's the same as what you think when you leave Africa. You hear that it's hard to find work in Europe, you hear that you need papers, but you think it's not true, that you'll get by."

The Immigration Forum, comprised of organizations like Cáritas and Jaén Acoge, an NGO that works with migrants, as well as government officials, has declared the situation a social emergency. Many cities in the province run a hostel for migrant workers, but this year in Jaén the 800 hostel spaces have been overrun. The city of Ubeda has turned its municipal gym into an emergency shelter, while Cáritas oversees the Santa Clara facility. "It's crowded, there are no beds, a cold-water shower, and only one toilet," says Juan Carlos Escobedo, the local head of Cáritas. "But without it, we'd have 200 people sleeping on the street in three-degree weather."

The regional government has already fed 9,200 people and bought bus tickets home for 1,800 disappointed migrants. But more keep arriving. In February, when the olive harvest ends, the workers will head to Huelva for the strawberry season. "It'll be the same problem all over again," says Pedro González, of Jaén Acoge.

Shiri Java hopes not. Last year, the Mauritanian man found work in Jaén, but 2008 is different. At 8 a.m. he has joined the line at the shelter waiting for breakfast. Balancing the piece of cardboard he uses for a bed under his arm, he takes a sweet roll and plastic cup of milky coffee. "I can't go back; there's no work in my town," Java says. "I came here to work. If I lose this season, I'm finished."

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