LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s government said on Tuesday it would protect the rights of migrant fruit and vegetable pickers and keep them safe from COVID-19 after a wave of infections in the sector revived concerns over the conditions they live in. As Portugal entered the final phase of easing a national lockdown last week, sanitary cordons were imposed in the southern municipality of Odemira, where hundreds of plastic-covered greenhouses rely on migrant labour to operate.
People are not allowed in or out of two parishes. One of them, Sao Teotonio, reported 1,910 cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period. The country’s average is around 64 cases.
To tackle the issue, the government has temporarily taken over a private eco resort in Odemira, where migrants considered high-risk contacts can self-isolate. Those who test positive for COVID-19 will be transferred to local lodging.
“Our priority is the public health of migrants,” Interior Minister Eduardo Cabrita said during a visit to Odemira. “I want those who come to work in Portugal to have the same rights as the Portuguese who work abroad.”
Many of the migrant workers – from countries such as Nepal, India and Bangladesh and also eastern Europe – live in packed living quarters with few amenities.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa has said the conditions migrants live in are a risk to public health and a “blatant violation of human rights”.
Rights groups say authorities have for years turned a blind eye to problems migrants endure, from unpaid work to having their identity documents confiscated.
Over the past four years, the border and immigration service SEF has identified 134 people who were trafficked for the purpose of labour exploitation in the Alentejo region, where Odemira is located.
The public prosecutors’ office in Odemira said it had 11 inquiries related to labour exploitation under investigation.
Mayor Jose Guerreiro said he had reported incidents of rights abuses to authorities around two years ago but nothing had been done at the time.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Additional reporting by Sergio Goncalves; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Timothy Heritage)