Illegal immigrants from Nepal, India, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistani and Vietnam are working illegally in the Alentejo to fill the increasing demand from agricultural companies for cheap labour.
It is estimated than in the Alentejo town of São Teotónio, near Odemira, its 6,500 inhabitants include over 4,000 illegal immigrants with tens of thousands across the region working without the necessary documentation.
These immigrants often work well over ten hours a day, on weekends and holidays, receiving "starvation wages of between €3 and €3.40 per hour, if they are lucky," says Mahendra Sapkota, a Nepalese worker.
"Someone has to do this work," explains Tânia Guerreiro, a social worker from the NGO Taipa de Odemira, who helps Asians in São Teotónio.
Some companies legally hire workers but most of the Asians in the Alentejo have entered the country illegally, many are victims of trafficking networks. The "criminals", according to a GNR spokesman, "are Eastern Europeans and Indians."
Rita Penedo, director of the Portuguese Observatory on Trafficking in Persons, says it is hard to prove people trafficking in agriculture which, he says, is a recent phenomenon and it is very difficult to obtain evidence.
According to social worker Tânia Guerreiro, Asian workers in the Alentejo often live in subhuman conditions, crammed into containers or in poorly maintained housing, often without electricity and running water.
Most Asians in the Alentejo do not have papers. Guerreiro says, "the new government of Portugal has made the legalisation of workers virtually impossible. But the reality is that there are more and more because the agricultural industry in the Alentejo is expanding into international markets."
Portugal needs foreign exchange through agricultural exports to EU countries such as the UK and Germany. Without cheap labour from Asia, for many growers it seems impossible to operate profitably. This is the vicious circle, with the authorities turning a blind eye to illegal immigration and the subsequent abuse of workers due to a lust for export performance from the agricultural sector.
Tânia Guerreiro commented that for “as long as the exporting agricultural companies need workers and neither the Portuguese nor other EU workers are willing to do this hard work for the minimum wage of €500, the influx of Asians will not stop, "Asians are slaves for the sake of Portuguese economic growth."
The problem is not only in the Alentejo with the recent boom in grant-funded agriculture in the Algarve fuelling a neeed for low-wage jobs, especially in red fruit farming and citrus production, both of which claim to need cheap labour to show a profit.
The authorities remain overstretched and semingly unconcerned with immigrants allowed to work and live in poor conditions despite everyone locally knowing which farms the illegal labour is working on.
Well publicised busts in the Algarve which nab and expel illegal foreign labour take place at seafront bars, cafes and restaurants with farmers and agricultural businesses left alone to continue their abuse in the name of profit.
The government is complicit in this area, in a similar way that it allows the unlicensed rental of accommodation to tourists despite having a set of rules and regulation which few property owners bother to adhere to - the benefit to the economy outweights the disbenefit of ensuring everyone involved follows the law.
It it likely that those famers and companies operating legally, with the additional costs involved, are those more likely to go bust, leaving the field open for illegally operated farms to turn a tidy profit. It is pointless in any society to have laws which are ignored with impunity but if there is no political will to eradicate the use of illegal labour, it will continue to thrive.