Strawberry and gender. This almost feels like an oxymoron. Well, here is a fun fact to ease you in. Strawberries may actually have three different genders – feminine with pistillate flowers, masculine with staminate flowers, and hermaphrodite with both. Most of the common strawberries we cultivate and eat are hermaphrodite to increase productivity. Yes, the used-to-be for royals berries are now mainstream and enjoyed by all.
A quick scroll through beauty and women’s health magazines will tell you all the benefits of strawberries from anti-ageing, slimming, exfoliating qualities to increased protection against cancer or heart disease. Why not gorge on them right? Well, just like for coffee, banana, and countless other crops, a closer look at the culture of strawberries in certain countries paints a different picture.
The vast majority of strawberry pickers are women. Whilst many highlight the employment and empowerment such job opportunity provides as well as the need for women’s “delicate” hands to harvest the red berries, the true reason for this feminisation of labour is much gloomier. Rather than lifting women out of poverty, the industry actually uses women’s economic precarity and gender pay gaps to supply low-wage and insecure jobs. In reality, the strawberry fields are the theatre of unequal opportunities and lack of rights for most workers whether in Morocco, Spain, or elsewhere.
Wages are often below the legal minimum, social security not provided, employment security lacking, health and safety standards disregarded, extra-hours unpaid, and the list goes on. During the Spanish high-season, seasonal strawberry pickers coming from outside Spain are only paid for the days they work, meaning that sick days or rainy ones will leave workers unpaid. Their migrant legal status is directly linked to their employment, which restricts their ability to stand up for their rights. Moreover, several reports of sexual violence, harassment, and verbal abuse are also routine, especially given the disproportionate power held by supervisors (primarily men) since they transport them to the field, decide on wages, supervise the work, provide the basic health services, and oftentimes house the seasonal workers. Whilst survivors state that abortion are routine in certain farms, their insecure legal status works as a first obstacle to speak out. Even if they decide to seek help, local authorities tend to deny or dismiss their claims, preventing them from obtaining justice.
Yes, many of the strawberries consumed in Europe, especially from Spain or Morocco, are the fruit of poor and abusive labour conditions. Now, there are some local associations and organisations that are trying to bring about change. Studies have highlighted how positive action brought about change for the rights of strawberry pickers, in Morocco for instance, where they actually empowered women workers through training and literacy classes. In this way, they were able to not only realise that they were paid below standards but also had the means to protest for actual contracts and better work conditions. This did not only support workers but also producers with some employers have even reported increased productivity and a more stable workforce. Everybody wins.
And now what do you think? Strawberry and gender, still an oxymoron?