Personal history | Portugal

From engineer to fruit picker

Born in the Indian city of Chandigarh, fruit picker Jasbir Singh, 34, has been picking berries in Alentejo for five years. Soon he could apply for Portuguese citizenship. A conversation

A portrait of an Indian man with a full beard. He wears a black turban. He is standing in front of plants in the greenhouse.

Jasbir Singh in a greenhouse near Odemira

Mr Singh, why did you migrate from India to Europe?

My brother worked as a fruit picker in Spain. I wanted to try it too. In India, I studied engineering and also worked in that area, but the wages are low and it's hard to build something.

So how did you end up in Portugal?

I paid an employment agency in India the equivalent of around 10,000 euros, for the plane ticket, tourist visa, papers and so on. But when I arrived in Spain, I immediately came to Portugal, because here you can get a residence permit and start to work faster.

There are accusations that migrants are treated very badly by companies in Portugal. Is that true?

I have been lucky so far. On the two plantations where I worked, we were treated well. But there are companies around here in which that is not the case. Many of my colleagues are under very high pressure;they are forced to work very fast. Sometimes they are not even allowed to drink water at work, even though temperatures in the greenhouses can easily reach over 40 degrees in summer. That is inhumane.

What do they do about it? Are the harvest workers organised in a trade union to demand their rights?

No, there is no such thing here. We have to turn to the public, through the media. That's the only way we can apply pressure and change things.

Do you feel like a modern slave?

I don't. I am free. I can quit at any time if the working conditions are not right. I feel very comfortable here with my employer. I am now a permanent employee. I also received a salary increase, which means I now earn much more than the minimum wage of €705 a month.

How do you live in Portugal?

The biggest problem is housing. There is not enough good accommodation in this sparsely populated area. I was much better off in India. The rents are now so high that people often have to live in just one room or in shipping container settlements directly in the fields. In addition, the public transport connections are very poor.

Does that mean you would rather leave Portugal again?

No, not at all. We earn less here than in other European countries, but I like Portugal. I like the people: they are helpful, I don't feel subject to racism. There is almost no crime. Also, we are all entitled to free health care:that's worth a lot. In summer we go to the beach after work and enjoy the sea. Next year, I will apply for Portuguese citizenship. You can do that here after only five years - faster than in any other EU country. Then I could also go to France and work in agriculture there which is what many of my colleagues do. But I feel comfortable here.

The interview was conducted by Tilo Wagner