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Europe

Spain Gets Rich on Cheap Immigrant Labor

Many illegal immigrants undertake perilous trips to reach Europe. But rather arriving in the land of milk and honey, for many the cold reality is working in a glasshouse in Spain's Andalusia region.

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Thousands of immigrants risk their lives each year to reach Europe

Mustafa shivers and pulls his cap down more tightly over his face. The 27-year-old Senegalese is standing on a crossroad at the edge of the city El Ejido. It's early in the morning, and there's still a light fog.

Mustafa wasn't the first to arrive at the crossroads -- there are several small groups of Africans silently waiting for work.

"There are people here from Gambia, Guinea, and Mali," Mustafa said. "We come here every morning."

El Ejido, with a population of 75,000 and no tourist attractions, is in the middle of one of the world's biggest vegetable growing regions and is surrounded by a sea of glasshouses filled with tomatoes, paprika, and lettuce.

Landwirtschaft in Ungarn Paprika Ernte

Spain is one of the EU's biggest vegetable producers

With an annual production of 1.5 million tons of vegetables, there is enough work here. Yet Mustafa and the others often have to wait for hours for one reason - they're illegal.

"Everyone standing here is without papers," Mustafa said.

Long wait for illegals

"Sometimes we wait here for up to five hours," he said. "At two in the afternoon we go to get something to eat, and then we come back again at three."

The group don't like journalists because no farmer is likely stop if a microphone is being waved about. There are large fines for those who employ immigrants without papers. But the Africans still hope that a pick-up will pull up and load them in the back. Even if Mustafa doesn't find work today, he will come back tomorrow, as he has done for the past eight months.

Mustafa doesn't plan on staying much longer in El Ejido though. He wants to go north to Valencia or Barcelona -- or perhaps even France or Germany.

"I don't have a place to live," he said. "I sleep in a garage on a construction site, on the street."

But people are nice to him, he said -- even the police.

Tough living conditions

The chances of Mustafa ever getting a work permit aren't good. That means it's virtually impossible for him -- like thousands of others in the same situation -- to rent an apartment.

Reisepass mit Chip

Getting a legal permit is just a dream for many immigrants

That's why many of the illegals live in miserable conditions in abandoned houses dotted around the region.

In the nearby town of Nijar, in a place called Casa Vieja (old house), about 50 young Moroccans live in a fallen-down farmhouse. Halib has been squatting here for nearly eight months. The 22-year-old has managed to acquire a mattress, some cardboard boxes and a couple of meters of plastic sheeting. He might now have a roof over his head, but he doesn't have the luxury of water or electricity.

It takes Halib an hour walk to where he works in a glasshouse.

"The work is difficult," he said. "It's very hot, and for eight hours, they pay me 31 euros ($42). Life is bad."

Being illegal leaves many of the workers vulnerable to exploitation. Abdelkader Cacha, a right's campaigns at the agricultural workers union, SOC, said there is no protection for workers.

"They don't have masks or any protective clothing," he said. "And those who ask for them, get kicked out."

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