Three days after Sagar* arrived as a worker in Portugal from Nepal, he began to worry he had made a terrible mistake. “I had expectations to get good work, good money,” he says. “But the reality was different.”
The only job Sagar, 21, could find was on one of the country’s berry farms in Odemira, a rural region on the south-west coast. Earning less than the legal minimum wage to work 16-hour days in 40C heat, he knows he is being exploited. But quitting could jeopardise his residency application – and that’s a risk he cannot afford to take.
Sagar is one of more than 10,000 young men and women who have left their home countries to find work in Portugal’s £200m berry industry, picking fruit that will be sold in supermarkets across Europe.
They are drawn to Portugal and the heart of Europe’s soft fruits industry by the dream of what many refer to as a “raspberry passport”.
That’s because whether or not they entered Europe legally, upon arrival in Portugal, foreigners of any nationality can apply for temporary residency, as long as they have a work contract and can prove they are paying taxes in the country. Workers interviewed by the Guardian got jobs on farms through intermediary agencies without the need to prove they were yet a legal resident.
Once a worker has acquired temporary residency they can then begin a five-year countdown to citizenship – and a much-longed for Portuguese passport. “It’s the colour of a raspberry, about to fall from the tree,” says Sagar. “The passport is the one big dream. It’s your life changer.”
In the meantime, many overseas workers endure what they describe as exploitative conditions, fearful that changing jobs will nullify their residency application.
“Everyone is very scared,” says Sagar. “Your taxes are connected with your work, and your papers are connected with your taxes. And if you lose one, you lose the other.”
Sagar is halfway there. In just under three years, he will be legally entitled to a Portuguese passport, enabling him to live and work freely across the EU.
The desperation for a passport leaves thousands of foreign workers in conditions akin to labour bondage, says Alexandra Pereira, a researcher at the University of Lisbon, specialising in Nepali migration to Portugal. “They feel trapped, not only by the legal procedures but also the loans they got to come here and the money they have to pay to the people who brought them,” she says. “It keeps them in this cycle of exploitation.”
Berry pickers interviewed by the Guardian describe paying smugglers up to €18,000 (£15,000) to facilitate their entry into the EU. Rahul*, 28, took a precarious route across Serbia that saw him wading through rivers up to his neck. “I didn’t know if I would die on the way,” he says. “Nobody knows who I am, where I’m from. It’s a very, very difficult journey.”
After risking his life to get there, Odemira proved a crushing disappointment. “I don’t know anybody here who cares for me,” Rahul says, suddenly tearful. He would return to India in an instant, but he owes €7,000 to his smuggler, and his parents sold their home to cover the rest of the costs. They’re relying on him to send money home. “My heart is broken. I’m missing my girlfriend, missing my mother and father. I have nothing to show them.”
How long the process will take him is impossible to predict. Out of 40 migrant workers interviewed, one in four were still awaiting temporary residency, despite some filing their initial requests in early 2019.
One 25-year-old woman says she filed her residency application to Portugal’s foreigners and borders service in 2019 but was told in June that her application no longer existed. She has had to postpone her wedding in India twice. If she leaves the country, her application is nullified. “For three years [my fiance] has been waiting for me. We have dreams for our marriage, for everything … but everything is spoiled.”
Last year, the Portuguese government confirmed plans to shutter the service, but when this will happen remains uncertain. “The concern is that a large number of migrants may be stuck in a limbo until the new service starts working,” says the high commissioner for migration, Sónia Pereira. “It’s a cause of great anxiety.”
Without permanent residency, the berry pickers worry the smallest misstep could threaten their futures. “We can’t complain,” says one man from India, who says he sometimes works for up to 11 hours a day with less than an hour’s break. “When there is no work, what will you eat? What will you drink? Nothing.”
Sintab, a Portuguese labour union, has only managed to unionise 12 migrant workers in the region. “The rest of them were afraid to talk to us and then suffer reprisals,” says a former union employee, who asked to remain anonymous.
In June 2018, a group of berry pickers in Odemira staged a protest about working conditions and lost their jobs, according to farmworkers. “Afterwards, everyone was scared,” says Sagar. “So the rest, who were thinking to protest, keep on doing the work and following the others, and the same pattern [of exploitation] keeps going on.”
Fearful that their employers are watching their comings and goings, interviews with the Guardian take place after dark, as workers scout the streets to make sure nobody can see who is entering their homes. Crammed into small cottages by the dozen, they reveal bare mattresses on kitchen floors and bunks in draughty garages. In winter, temperatures at night can drop to sub-zero degrees. One worker says his bunk bed is infested with fleas.
Others sleep in converted shipping containers and pre-fabricated dormitories on the farms. One young woman from Nepal shares a room with up to 10 others, metres from her employer’s office on a farm. Sometimes, she doesn’t leave the property for weeks at a time, she says. “They have almost no access to the outside world while they’re there,” says Aashima Budal, a PhD candidate at the University of Stavanger. “They often compare themselves to animals.”
The workers’ arrival in Odemira has boosted a declining population and brought business to the quiet, rural community. Yet rights groups say support for the region’s newest residents remains inadequate. Earlier this year, videos surfaced of military police violence against the migrant community in Odemira in 2018 and 2019. In one instance, footage shows several officers forcing one young man to inhale a breathalyser filled with pepper gas.
Sagar alleges that a police officer stopped him in the street and assaulted him in 2018. “He slapped me in my chest,” he says, miming someone pushing him with the heels of their hands. “Two times, he slapped me like that … It’s the worst experience I’ve had in this country.” He didn’t report the incident. “I didn’t have the courage,” he says.
Portugal’s national guard told the Guardian it has a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination and that personnel involved in the incidents filmed in 2018 and 2019 have been suspended from duty during ongoing disciplinary proceedings. It has also organised awareness-raising training on human rights issues, including racism.
The main public health centre in Odemira is also struggling to keep up with the growing population, says one senior employee, claiming language barriers and a lack of resources compromises the standard of services they’re able to provide to those working on the berry farms. “If you ask me … Is the care being given in an adequate manner [to the workers]? No.”
Scared that any medical complaints could also affect their employability, the berry pickers say they often avoid seeking treatment for pre-existing conditions and injuries suffered at work. “If I go to the health centre, they will ask me so many questions,” says one man, who revealed infected cuts on his hands. “They can ask me about my card, my residency, so many papers. I want to avoid all the problems.”
Everyone in Portugal has the right to healthcare, regardless of their residency status, says a spokesperson for the department of health, adding that the Odemira health centre has a 24/7 emergency unit and an interpreter available once a week.
The Portuguese foreigners and borders service told the Guardian it was monitoring the situation in Odemira and that improving public service and speeding up the residency process are priority issues.
For Sagar, life in Portugal has become an endurance exercise. After his seventh hour in the berry fields, his thoughts shift to home – and whether he will ever be able to afford the 8,000 km (5,000 mile) journey back to Nepal.
“Maybe by the end of 2025, I will apply for the passport,” he says. “I just hope maybe I could get one, finally. And something will change after that … I will leave this place and go somewhere else and start a new life.”
* Names have been changed to protect identity