Olives are by far the most important crop for the Malaga farming industry. The province has 130,000 hectares of olive groves, more than all the others in Andalucía put together, and 23,000 farmers make their living from this business. Last year alone, turnover was 254.5 million euros, of which 216 million came from olive oil and 38.5 million from edible olives. It accounts for 31.6 per cent of total agricultural turnover in the province, which in 2018 was 803.7 million euros.
These figures highlight the enormous importance of the olive industry in Malaga. In addition, the sector provides work for more than one million casual labourers every year, either picking the olives or in the mills. The Comisiones Obreras union says 30,000 people are employed in the farming sector of Malaga, of whom 14,000 form part of the agricultural development scheme known as PEFEA (formerly PER).
It may sound as if there is plenty of labour available in the countryside, but in fact farmers have been unable to find anyone to pick the olives during this latest harvest and it has become a major problem for many, especially those with small farms. Many are now offering higher wages in order to ensure their harvest gets picked.
"Not even in the years of the economic boom, when so many workers moved to other sectors such as construction, was the situation this bad" says Gonzalo Ramírez, a 29-year-old who owns land with more than 9,000 olive trees in Bobadilla. "There simply isn't anyone who wants to do the job this year".
Francisco Moscoso agrees. He is the provincial secretary of the UPA union and grows olives in Cuevas de San Marcos, a village on the boundary with Cordoba province. He says the lack of workers is a problem which is affecting the whole of Andalucía.
The overall picture for this sector since the olive harvesting season began in October is that the harvesting machines are lying idle because of the lack of workers and there is a major problem in training new ones for the season. Some growers are worried because their olives have been on the trees for weeks already and the price of olive oil is expected to drop very soon.
Why is there such a lack of workers to pick olives in Malaga this year? The president of the young farmers' association Asaja Malaga, Baldomero Bellido, says one possible reason is that many olive growers, in Malaga and the rest of Andalucía, have started picking earlier because of fears that the price of olive oil was going to drop. "The forecasts are that it will be a good olive harvest this year, in Spain and abroad. This increase in supply is making many people think that the price of oil will go down, so they wanted to harvest the olives early," he says. This has led to a shortage of experienced pickers in many places in Andalucía, but Bellido hopes things will improve once the earliest harvesting has been completed and the teams are free to work elsewhere.
Some farmers also wanted to pick their olives as early as possible because they are afraid they will be stolen. The longer the olives stay on the trees, the greater the risk that one day the farmers will get up and find they have gone. Gonzalo Ramírez is just one of those who share that concern.
However, that is not the only reason. Sources at Asaja say the economy in the province has improved and there are jobs in the construction industry again, so many people who would normally pick olives have chosen to work on building sites instead.
"Some teams who have picked olives for years have found jobs in the construction or service sectors now," says José Luis Navarro, the owner of a company in Antequera which provides temporary staff, including for the olive harvest. This year they have been able to supply two teams of workers, one less than in 2017.
There is also a generational problem, where olive farmers have grown older and their children have not wanted to continue in the family business. This has resulted in more companies being set up to maintain the olive groves and deal with the harvesting as well.
"Nowadays more farmers are encountering problems in finding teams to pick the olives so they are turning to one of the companies that do it instead," says Ramírez, who has his own brand of olive oil, Cortijo El Solano, produced from the olives he grows.
There are also fewer migrant workers this year. "Many went back to their own countries during the economic crisis, or they have moved to other EU countries where the economic situation is better than in Spain," says Baldomero Bellido.
In the Antequera area there used to be teams of Romanian olive pickers, and also in La Axarquía, where the lack of labourers for the olive harvest is now endemic although there are plenty of Arab workers in the area.
For Andrés González Gato, who is the secretary of the CCOO union's industrial department in Malaga, another reason for the lack of olive pickers could be that temporary jobs available under the Agricultural Training Plan (PFEA) have coincided with the harvesting of olives to make olive oil.
González is calling for the sector to sit down with the unions and negotiate better salaries and working conditions. One of the biggest problems with agricultural work, he says, is that it is seasonal and many workers would prefer to find more stable employment in other sectors.
He also considers it necessary to reconsider the complementary assistance paid to agricultural workers, so they would be able to work at peak times. He would also like better training to be available for such workers, to provide them with better job opportunities.
New types of farming
The problems in finding labour on olive farms and new trends in growing are leading to the design of new plantations with more efficient production and faster harvesting, using more machines and fewer labourers.
At present the teams who pick olives consist of about ten people. In future, super-intensive olive farms will be able to harvest mechanically, using a machine which shakes the fruit from the tree into a bin and just three workers.
"At least, that looks to be the way things are going," says Bellido, who also explains that the trees in the new plantations are smaller and have a single trunk and not three or four as at present.
Although the growers say this is a temporary problem, in reality young people in general prefer to work in other sectors where they have a better chance of getting a permanent job so it is very likely that there are going to be vacancies for workers on olive farms for a long time to come.