Migrant workers at Almograve Youth Hostel, in the Odemira borough, where they were put into isolation earlier this month Photo: NUNO VEIGA/LUSA

PM forced into ‘damage control’ intervention over Covid ‘blackspot’  of Odemira

Following a manic week of news and revelations from the ‘Covid-blackspot’ of Odemira, prime minister António Costa cancelled his agenda on Tuesday afternoon in order to wrestle back control.

From now on, the housing of immigrant agricultural workers employed by intensive salad greens and berry explorations will have some structure to ensure adult men are not packed cheek-by-jowl into unsanitary accommodation paying small fortunes for the privilege as they eke out a living that can only be described as ‘modern-day slavery’.

Temporary workers brought in for specific moments (harvesting, etc.) are to be offered decent conditions of housing by their employing entities, while the living conditions of permanent workers will be the responsibility of the municipality.

On the basis that there are not enough homes to offer permanent workers, EU funding is to be used to construct what is necessary.

This is clearly a ‘long-term’ plan and doesn’t fully explain ‘what happens in the meantime’. But it is a solid step in the right direction.

President Marcelo waded into the developing crisis over a week ago, demanding reports from his advisors on everything that was ‘wrong’ in Odemira.

He said on Tuesday as António Costa was still on his way to what is the largest municipality in the country, there will have to be ‘many political consequences’ from this episode that began with ‘the alarm’ that cases of Covid in the municipality were ‘running out of control’.

This has been ‘dealt with’ now in that the cases were largely within the immigrant population – by dint of their miserable living conditions (which have been an open secret for the best part of a decade) – and these have been isolated and are recovering without any reports of serious illness.

The sanitary cordon that had barricaded citizens of two parishes from the outside world for the last 12 days is now over, and a robust vaccination and testing programme underway.

With certainly one of the political consequences likely being the performance through this drama of the ministry of interior administration Eduardo Cabrita (notably absent in Mr Costa’s damage control intervention on Tuesday), others have been highlighted by local politicians – particularly when it comes to the total lack of ‘joined up thinking’ over territorial order.

Mayor José Gonçalves in the neighbouring borough of Aljezur – which was also blighted by an outbreak of Covid infections among immigrants employed on Odemira’s explorations – explains that everything that is wrong stems from successive governments having allowed “the practice of unrestrained, unregulated, intensive agriculture” in an area that has been designated as a natural park (the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, or ‘PNSACV’).

Irrespective of the effects on the environment, on communities, the lack of control has meant that nothing is being done with regards to addressing issues over water. These explorations – many of them unlicensed – are ‘guzzling’ the area’s precious supplies; every year issues with water become that more acute.

It’s time, says the mayor for much more than the rehousing thousands of ‘pawns’ in this insidious game. It’s time to define:

  • agricultural policies for the PNSACV and the Perimetro de Rega do Mira which supplies farms and orchards with water from the Santa Clara dam;
  • environmental policies for PNSACV;
  • proper management of water in Santa Clara (levels of which are described by environmentalists as ‘dead’);
  • immediate revision of rules of what is allowed within PNSACV;
  • Resolutions for ‘serious social problems’ that persist in Odemira and to a lesser extent Aljezur.

Says Mr Gonçalves, “the challenge is enormous”. But it makes no sense that people living legally within the natural park (that stretches from Vila do Bispo in the south round Sagres and up to Sines) are not even allowed to undertake the simplest of home-improvements, while companies can come in, cover huge tracts of land with plastic-covered greenhouses, pollute the soil and groundwater with chemicals, guzzle water and exploit Third World citizens living in unimaginable poverty. 

“It’s time to face this situation with realism”, the mayor concluded in a statement, while on television commentator Miguel Sousa Tavares praised the concerted efforts of journalists throughout the country in ramming home Odemira’s problems, to the point that they have finally started being addressed at the highest level of government.

Leader writer Eduardo Damâso, director of Sâbado magazine, warns that even this however is not enough.

“What Odemira needs cannot be resolved with mere episodes of political protagonism even from the highest level”, he wrote on Wednesday. “It needs rigorous decision-making and good planning, investment and respect from those in Lisbon who think Portugal exists between the Palaces of São Bento (the prime minister’s official residence) and Belém (the official residence of the president).

Odemira has ‘no health care system to speak of, no roads, no quality employment’, says Mr Damâso. It needs much more in the way of education and environmental protection, or what is one of the most beautiful coastal areas of Europe that is meant to be ‘protected’ will simply continue to be ravished.

Immigrants pay up to €17,000 for ‘the privilege’ of working in Odemira explorations

This is just one of the ‘shocks’ coming out of journalistic investigations into the plight of immigrant workers employed in explorations in Odemira. Many of these workers do not have contracts with their employers (only with employment agencies), Miguel Sousa Tavares told TVI, and they have paid anything between €12,000 – €17,000 for the privilege of securing their jobs, unaware that part of this money goes to the companies employing them. “This is scandalous”, said Tavares.

The ‘scandals’ don’t appear to stop coming, but the more they come out, the more local authorities that have for years been demanding solutions may at last start seeing them.

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