Different associations, such as Freshuelva, Interfresa, Asaja, and Cooperativas Agroalimentarias, carried out a crisis meeting to analyze the events that affect Huelva's berry sector, including the possible lack of pickers during the peak period of strawberry production and other berries, as well as the start of the stone fruit season, which still coincides with the citrus season. The borders with Morocco, a country that provides the sector with a significant part of its workforce, have been closed due to the coronavirus. There are diverse opinions, however, on whether the arrival of foreign temporary workers should be halted or not, given the evolution of the spread of the coronavirus.
"The closure of the borders due to the expansion of the coronavirus has stopped the arrival of workers from Morocco, which can have a strong negative impact on the sector, considering that the production will peak in the coming weeks," stated Rafael Dominguez, the manager of Freshuelva.
“Only 35 to 45% of the Moroccan workers that we expected on these dates have arrived. We are waiting for the Secretary of State to confirm if we'll be able to count on the Moroccan workers that we had hired,” he added. "We also expected the arrival of workers from Eastern European countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, who have been unable to arrive because they had to cross through certain countries that have closed their borders. We need to know what solutions are going to be adopted by public administrations to ensure that supply is not interrupted,” adds Rafael Dominguez.
“At the moment there still is a national and international demand. We continue to produce and supply both the domestic market and our main export markets, such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, taking extreme hygiene and health measures for all workers and the fruit's safety. We have also been supplying Italy in its moments of greatest need and we want to continue reaching all of Europe. How other EU countries will react remains to be seen. We hope there will be flexibility at the borders so that the transport of merchandise is as fluid as possible,” he stated.
"It's best if the borders are not raised, we risk too much"
The closing of borders has generated a division of opinions. Public institutions demand that the borders be opened to temporary workers, while other private companies do not advise that exceptions be made, for the safety of citizens.
"I think it is a mistake that the rules and protocols are applied for some sectors and not for others," stated a berry-producing company from Huelva, which preferred to remain anonymous. "The product is still being sent to the market and there are no problems. There still are orders and the entry of food products is not restricted at the borders. It is a delicate situation and it affects us all. There's much more at stake than the harvesting of the fruit. It's true that we won't be able to collect everything, but we have to feel lucky to continue working and maintaining supply.”
"To alleviate this situation, it would be interesting if the supermarkets do not close at Easter, which coincides with the berry production peak and there are often massive stockpiling situations that are similar to the ones we've seen these days, as well as overproduction issues. If the big distribution and central markets close this year, it could be disastrous,” they stated.