Portugal emerged from its 78 billion euro (about $106 billion) international bailout 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, the combination of Portugal’s low minimum wage and still ample enough unemployment benefits, and not least, 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,” Mr. 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 Ms. Miquelino, who previously worked in a nursery.
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,” Ms. 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.
Bringing over Thai workers requires visas and proof from RAC that it cannot find local workers. Recruiting a Thai picker also costs RAC almost 2,000 euros more per year than if it hired a local, as the company pays for a return airline ticket to Thailand and provides housing, where workers share rooms of four or six bunk beds.
Even so, it has made economic sense for the company. The return on investment is high because the Thais work very quickly and carefully, without crushing the delicate raspberries, according to Eduardo Lopez, a Californian who heads RAC’s Portuguese operations.
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,” Mr. Lopez said. “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 office administrators. In addition to the Thai workers, others are mostly from Eastern Europe, but also from countries like Brazil, Morocco and Nepal.
Mr. Murillo, the berry 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 — and even once getting deported back to Mexico by the American authorities. “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. Mr. 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 Portuguesegovernment, 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.”
Echoing that view, Carlos Bernardino, a chemical engineer who is an elected member of Odemira’s local assembly, said, “Everybody here wants to work in public administration, but I don’t know anybody who wants to say they work in agriculture.”
The Thais work about eight months on the berry farm and then normally head back to Thailand during Portugal’s winter break, to spend time with their families and farm rice.
“Thais work very fast and show real respect, even if it’s hard to speak with them,” said Nedyalko Valkanov, a Bulgarian production supervisor on RAC’s farm, who said he had learned some Thai to improve communications.
Maria Graça Mateus Ricardo, one of the farm’s Portuguese berry pickers, said she was used to working alongside foreigners but was still irked that “our state gives subsidies to foreign companies to invest in Portugal, but then these companies bring workers from abroad.”