Incense perfumes the room with sandalwood and musk, adding weight to air already heavy with southern France’s July heat. Like he does every Ramadan, Mohamad El-Asery has been passing his days without food or drink. But this year, the holy month falls at the sun’s pinnacle. It’s that time of year when the dawn breaks before the bakeries begin proffering fresh croissants, and the light lingers well past the evening aperitif, the sacred hours when weary Frenchmen imbibe pungent anise liqueur.
Life continues despite El-Asery’s long days of self-restraint: He still drives his aging gray Peugeot at least five days a week to work vegetable fields a 20-minute drive outside of Arles, where he lives. Fatigued for want of his normal morning coffee and bread, El-Asery harvests delicate mesclun and beefsteak tomatoes, those gems of French terroir that pair so well with local goat cheese. The days of repetitive work exhaust body and mind, but El-Asery has kept at it for 30 years.
He is one of the thousands of North African farmhands bolstering France’s agricultural industry. He now has permission to reside full-time in France, but his career started with a seasonal contract allowing Moroccans and Tunisians to work in French agriculture six months annually.
Just as in the United States, the industrialization of agriculture in Europe necessitates a mobile, flexible workforce—and employers say native Frenchmen aren’t meeting that demand. Stories of chronic labor abuses stain the system’s past and continue to color its present, with seasonal workers often shorted on salaries and social security benefits owed.
Today’s industrialized agricultural landscape is inconsistent with the popular notion of idyllic rural France.
France developed this program to import seasonal workers in 1964, shortly after the end of French colonial rule in North Africa. After France attempted to seal its border to new immigrants forty years ago, foreign laborers could only legally enter France with short-term visas to work in a handful of industries, including agriculture. Like El-Asery, most were men from rural areas.
Seeing it as their most lucrative prospect, many of these labor migrants have cobbled together a career out of seasonal work in France. But even they are now in danger of losing their already shaky livelihoods: French farmers are increasingly turning to foreign private contract agencies that deliver on-demand, ultra-flexible migrant laborers, squeezing out those, like El-Asery, who work on the “traditional” seasonal agreements.
A powerhouse rich with heritage, the French agricultural industry remains the fifth largest in the world. But today’s industrialized agricultural landscape is inconsistent with the popular notion of idyllic rural France. Travel guides and epicurean glossies often depict family farms among blossoming lavender fields and vineyards. But the spike in demand for year-round produce has forced the shuttering of nearly 80 percent of farms in Provence, the country’s cornucopia, since the ‘70s.
El-Asery’s building sits adjacent to a parking lot, not far from the quaint cobblestone street Vincent Van Gogh painted in his Café Terrace at Night. The farmhand’s view, though, overlooks an alley lined with garbage cans—a far cry from Van Gogh’s romanticized, starlit Arles street scene awash in dusky blues and yellows.
This afternoon, El-Asery dons fresh white clothes elegantly defined against his deeply bronzed skin. Today he will celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, welcoming his fast’s end. With a wide grin, El-Asery lays out a spread of Moroccan cookies, cakes, fruit juices and water, both still and sparkling. It’s a holiday, after all.
The studio apartment resembles a dorm room, but El-Asery’s hospitality makes it feel like a hotel lounge. His union representative Louis Rouve starts asking about the workday, eliciting a frustrated eye roll from El-Asery. His smile wavers little, though, relentless optimism persisting. He buzzes back and forth brewing coffee and tidying up the already spotless room.
When he first began working in France, El-Asery was a newlywed with one son. Today, he’s a father of seven. He began working in Provence in 1984, at age nineteen, following his father and two uncles. His family remains in their small Moroccan town outside of Fez.
El-Asery’s story is typical of migrant workers, who feel they can’t speak out against their bosses for fear of reprisal.
Today he has chronic back problems, injuries sustained after several tractor accidents, but his boss won’t file for worker compensation. El-Asery also connects lingering illness to his regular contact with pesticides. One day when he felt particularly feverish and asked to have the afternoon off, El-Asery recalls his boss told him, “If you don’t apply the pesticides, I don’t need you.”
The state mandates medical examinations for all foreigners who work legally in France. At one appointment, El-Asery remembers, his boss lied to the doctor, denying that El-Asery ever used farm machinery or applied pesticides. “If I had told them it was me who did that work, he wouldn’t have renewed my contract the next year,” El-Asery says.
“But why do you stay?” Rouve of the labor union asks him. El-Asery replies with a meek shrug: “I’m married, I have kids in Morocco. I need to send money; I need to pay my bills. What am I supposed to do?”
El-Asery’s story is typical of migrant workers, who feel they can’t speak out against their bosses for fear of reprisal. Contract renewals are subject to employer discretion, and the smallest tiff could leave migrant workers unemployed. When conflicts occur, employers can easily opt out of contract renewal for the following season. Legal avenues for seasonal migrants to protest labor injustices do exist, but most migrants view speaking out as too risky.
Beyond his health problems, El-Asery’s boss owes him several months’ worth of overtime. But he and Rouve agree that, at least for now, it’s best to lay low for fear of future repercussions. At 52, El-Asery has at least a decade until retirement.
“If I went out looking for other work, I wouldn’t find it,” he says. “If I go out like this, what can I do? I have family at home, rent, taxes—I pay everything. What can I do? How could I live? There’s nothing else.”
In 2005, more than 200 workers from Morocco and Tunisia went on strike, demonstrating against inadequate lodging and workplace dangers, in addition to demanding unpaid overtime. The strike was unprecedented for a precarious workforce generally viewed as docile.
The next year, the employer network in the region, an area that includes El-Asery’s workplace in the Crau canton near Arles, blacklisted the strikers. Only five obtained contract renewals.
But a seminal court battle between a Moroccan man and the Marseille prefecture kindled hopes for change. Baloua Aït Baloua, a 53-year-old Moroccan who worked seasonally for 24 years, applied for a long-stay visa after his boss retired in 2005, on the grounds that after decades of working in France, his contributions demonstrated his ability to “integrate.” The prefecture refused him, even though he had worked several extended seasons and documented 6,300 unpaid overtime hours.
But his legal appeal gained national attention. “It made an enormous amount of noise,” said lawyer Hervé Gouyer, who defended Baloua. In 2008, the Marseille tribunal ruled that all workers who could prove past employment of ten eight-month seasons could claim eligibility for long-stay visas. Hundreds of seasonal workers, including El-Asery, applied and received this right, nominally qualifying them to swim in the same labor pool as French citizens.
But the celebration was short-lived: With expanded rights came increased hostility from French employers, El-Asery explained, his phone chiming incessantly from Eid well-wishers in Morocco. He said his boss grinds him harder everyday, hoping that he will break down and leave. “It’s forced work; we can’t ever stop,” El-Asery says. “Force is constant, always force. And the force—it’s too much.”
“You can’t ever quit,” Rouve tells him. “Or you’ll lose your unemployment. If he doesn’t want you, then it’s on him to let you go.”
El-Asery agrees. But still, “I’m sick of working this way, like a dog,” he says. “I’m a man. I’m clean. I’m smart. But work now? There are so many problems.”
He reaches across the table to pour more coffee from a silver filigree pot, a keepsake from home. His forearms are a canvas for skinny red etchings, cuts characteristic of those harvesting zucchini and cucumbers, vegetables naturally protected by prickly stalks. “I don’t have my family here, but that’s that,” he says. “I have the courage to work.”
But today, courage only goes so far. Whether they hold long-stay visas like El-Asery or continue to work on seasonal contracts, many North African workers now face unemployment in France. Their relatively newfound empowerment makes these workers far less attractive, leaving employers in search of cheaper, even more flexible labor.
Foreign temporary contract agencies have stepped in to meet the demand of French farmers with their growing army of migrant workers. The most documented of these companies is Terra Fecundis, a temporary employment agency based in Murcia, Spain. The company recruits contract workers, mostly from Ecuador, who would otherwise find securing jobs difficult.
The European Union has left its patchwork of nations with frayed edges, failing to enact unified social policies that transcend borders.
Conceived of by two brothers—Juan Jose Lopez and Antonio Francisco Lopez—Terra Fecundis has offered an ultra-flexible labor pool since 2000, targeting farmers especially in Spain and France. Sociologist Beatrice Mésini has been following the rise of temporary work agencies in agriculture since 2000. “After the strikes, it was economic opportunism,” Mésini said. “The companies were ready in Spain, with everything organized, to make an offer to French agro-businesses that were upset.” The brothers did not respond to requests for comment.
The growth of contracting companies that provide ultra-flexible labor has been especially hard on the North African seasonal migrants who used to find employment with relative ease. “Year to year, there’s so many more problems with bosses,” El-Asery says. “The boss is just looking for ways to economize. He finds a cheaper worker? He doesn’t keep the Moroccan anymore. The Ecuadorians come, they work, they live; it’s easy. And it’s a problem.”
It would be easy to blame farm-owners for the ills of this system. But they face financial pressures that make staying afloat increasingly difficult. Their plight has gained international attention in recent years, especially after the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance released a report showing that male farmers were 20 percent more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the French population.
The business model employed by companies like Terra Fecundis, Mésini said, is in line with the European liberalization of domestic markets that promote more open exchange of goods and services. But the European Union has left its patchwork of nations with frayed edges, failing to enact unified social policies that transcend borders. Labor standards vary nationally, and France’s are relatively strict compared to its competitors in Spain or Italy, for example, so French farmers face higher input costs.
France does receive the greatest proportion of Europe’s agricultural aid, but it’s distributed according to production volume. The enterprises that receive the most subsidies rarely need many farmhands. France’s wheat industry, the world’s fourth largest, receives significant aid, even though machines do most of the planting and harvesting.
The need for manual labor is particularly acute in the fruit industry, since harvest machines will damage delicate produce like peaches or berries. Stéphanie Prat is a lawyer for France’s National Federation of Fruit Producers. She said the unwillingness of local Frenchmen to work on farms forces employers to look abroad.
Prat referenced a blueberry producer in eastern France, who needed 80 people for a three-week harvest. He looked first to locals: “He hired and signed contracts with 150,” Prat said. “And by the end, there were 30. That is—objectively—that is a catastrophe.” Between the subsidy system and intra-European competition, French farmers are in a pinch, she said, justifying the employment of cheap migrant labor.
Despite the boss’s efforts to squeeze him out, El-Asery says he won’t relent. Tonight he will prepare another Eid al-Fitr meal alone. It’s easy, he says, because halal butchers abound in Arles—perhaps even outnumbering the French ones.
Rouve and El-Asery laugh like teenage buddies when Rouve suggests the boss should have received an invitation to dinner. Still chuckling, El-Asery says he’s grateful that because he worked hard yesterday, the day’s to-do list was light.
His boss even let him off a little early: “He told me, ‘Just pick the rest of this,’” El-Asery says. “Then go have your party.”