ODEMIRA, Portugal — Portugal may have 15 percent unemployment, but that does not mean that Reiter Affiliated Cos., an American fruit producer, can find local people to pick berries on its 188-acre farm here.
Last year, the company, also known as RAC, began a nationwide recruitment campaign and hired 40 Portuguese. Half quit after the first day. By the end of the week, not a single one was left.
“They wanted a job, but this wasn’t what they were looking for, because it was basically too hard for too little money,” said Arnulfo Murillo, the farm’s production manager. “Farming here isn’t harder than in America, but the big difference is that being unemployed in the U.S. is a lot harder and in no way an attractive alternative.”
Instead, the farm has imported a third of its labor force all the way from Thailand — 160 of 450 employees — a more-expensive alternative, but one that has filled its ranks.
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The reasons the farm work does not appeal to the Portuguese are complex, but they boil down to one simple fact: It makes little economic sense. That predicament says a lot about the challenges facing the country, and much of the rest of Europe, as it struggles to gain economic traction and foster opportunities, especially for its younger generation.
Portugal emerged from its 78 billion euro international bailout (about $106 billion) in May with changes to its economy and social-welfare benefits that have both altered its labor market and forced important industries to navigate a new and uncertain terrain.
For its agricultural sector, about 2.4 percent of the country’s economic output, the problem of finding labor has been exacerbated by European Union subsidies that value high production over higher wages, by the combination of Portugal’s low minimum wage and still-ample-enough unemployment benefits, and not least, by an image problem.
José Alberto Guerreiro, the Socialist mayor of the municipality of Odemira, where RAC’s farm is, said the labor shortage was a real problem for local farms. Youths, he said, preferred to rely on summer tourism jobs or find better-paid work overseas rather than on a farm, which is “very badly considered in Portugal, as a job from the past rather than the future.”
In any case, “Portugal has a system of support for the unemployed that means it can be financially the same whether you work or not,” Guerreiro said. “You have to understand that our young generation has been educated to expect a place in the sun — certainly not to end up doing hard manual work in the fields.”
Laura Miquelino, a 32-year-old from Odemira, has been unemployed for a year. Even so, she said, she would work on a farm only for higher pay. Just her monthly gas bill for the 10-mile commute to the farm would eat up a sizable portion of her pay at Portugal’s minimum wage, she said.
“The Portuguese state has set a minimum wage that doesn’t really justify doing this kind of work, because it means you’re taking almost no money home from what is a hard and very time-consuming job,” said Miquelino, who previously worked in a nursery.
As part of the terms of its bailout, the government almost halved the period for which unemployment benefits could be claimed, to 18 months. It is now offering exemptions from social-security payments to companies that hire new staff members.
But those measures have not created incentive enough for many young Portuguese. European Union farming subsidies have contributed to the problem because they have reduced the pressure to restructure the farming sector and bolster its profitability, according to Catarina Santos Ferreira, a labor lawyer at ABBC, a Portuguese law firm.
“European subsidies should have been used to restructure agricultural activities in a way that then allows farms to pay higher wages, but that has not been the case,” Santos Ferreira said. “When wages are very low and people are receiving unemployment benefits, it seems pretty normal that people prefer to get the benefit, stay home and not do a job that is very hard.”
RAC turned to importing labor from Asia three years ago, at the very depths of Portugal’s economic crisis.
RAC pays fruit pickers Portugal’s minimum wage, equivalent to $770 per month.
But it also offers a bonus system for extra production, and the Thais take full advantage. Last year, Thai workers earned a monthly gross salary of about $1,440, about $135 more than the overall average for the farm’s fruit pickers.
“The Thais even asked us to scrap their lunch break in order to work longer, but that’s against Portuguese labor law,” said Eduardo Lopez, who heads RAC’s Portuguese operations. “We made real efforts to hire more locals, but it’s brought a lot of disappointment.”
Today, just under 100 employees are Portuguese, 50 of whom pick berries. The rest are technicians or administrators. In addition to Thai workers, other pickers are mostly from Eastern Europe, but also from countries such as Brazil, Morocco and Nepal.
Murillo, the farm’s production manager, is Mexican but ended up in Portugal because he could get legal work here, he said, after a decade on California farms as an undocumented worker. “My experience of working in America is similar to here, in that there are no Americans who want to be in the fields of California,” he said.
Sunil Pun, a Nepalese fruit picker, said many Nepalese also moved to Portugal because it was relatively easy to gain working residency. Pun previously worked on a chicken farm in Poland. “The money is better in northern Europe, but the treatment is more equal here and there is less racism,” he said.
Paul Doleman, a Dutch agricultural consultant who has worked in Portugal for 25 years, said Portugal’s reliance on foreign workers had risen even during the crisis years. Around Odemira, more than 60 percent of the 5,000 farm workers are now foreigners, he estimated. The government, he argued, should promote more vocational training, including “making sure agriculture is valued as a profession and not seen as the worst of all options.”