Europe, Globe, United Kingdom

The fight for agricultural workers’ rights in Spain

More than half of Europe’s fruit and vegetables are grown in southern Spain. Much of the produce grown goes to UK and European supermarkets. But for many years workers from the region have protested against serious exploitation. 


Clare Carlile / Ethical Consumer*


UK-based organisations Ethical Consumer and The Landworkers Alliance are working with unions and workers based in the Almeria and Huelva regions of southern Spain to develop a campaign to pressure supermarkets to use their buying power to end the exploitation of supply chain workers in the region.

The problems faced by workers

Miles of plastic greenhouses cover the Almerian landscape, where peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables are grown. The greenhouses are surrounded by improvised shelters, where many of the workers live and which are periodically razed by local authorities. Their inhabitants say that they are overcrowded and often without running water.

Ethical Consumer has been writing about and campaigning on working and living conditions for migrant workers on farms in southern Spain since the beginning of 2019.

Thousands of migrant workers in the Spanish regions of Huelva and Almeria work in gruelling conditions, picking salad vegetables and soft fruits that are sold in UK supermarkets.

For more than 20 years, workers have been reporting flagrant abuses of basic rights.

They often receive as little as 32 euros for an eight-hour day. Employees are frequently expected to continue working whilst dangerous agrichemicals are being sprayed in the greenhouses or to use them without proper protection.

Some workers have been sacked for striking and a local union has reported physical, verbal and legal threats to stop the members electing representatives.

The failure of employers and the government to provide basic rights has resulted in thousands of workers and their families living in make-shift settlements, in housing made out of wooden pallets, cardboard and plastic from the local greenhouses.

Ethical Consumer is working with local grassroots organisations, led by the workers, to report on abuses as they are reported.

Spitou’s story

Spitou Mendy was previously a teacher in Senegal.

“I have been here working and struggling for 19 years, working for many years under plastic. I have to say the main change in this time is: nothing.

“The companies are constantly trying to reduce wages and now, with the new minimum wage, if they have to give you a bit more they try to cut back some other benefit to increase their profits.

“In Huelva it’s the same system of exploitation of labour…

“There are a few places, not many, who pay the minimum wage, but in the majority of the cases they take it from somewhere else, for example the travel costs which are supposed to be paid. There is little motivation to go and work in a greenhouse. This is an experience that I have lived myself. I am living it now.”

Supermarkets know about the problem

Ethical Consumer investigations since 2019 suggest that all major UK supermarkets source produce from Almeria and Huelva in southern Spain.

Over this period, Ethical Consumer and The Landworkers Alliance have repeatedly been in contact with the supermarkets to try and find out why they’re failing to address a problem which has been widely recognised for the last 20 years.

Supermarkets have been informed whenever it has been possible to find direct links between farms in Almeria or Huelva where abuses are known and produce being sold in the UK.

On several occasions UK supermarkets have stepped in to demand that companies in their supply chains stop abusing workers’ rights.

However, clearly, supermarkets are not doing enough to ensure that workers’ rights are respected in the long-term. Many supermarkets hide behind their supply chain policies and certifications, suggesting that these are evidence that their suppliers are operating ethically and that they are not part of the problem.

But, the evidence shows that neither certifications nor supply chain policies can create the type of change workers need in the agricultural sector of southern Spain.

*This article was first published on the Ethical Consumer website. The Prisma is collaborating with Ethical Consumer to translate a series of articles, which focus on workers’ rights issues in the agricultural sector in southern Spain

(Photos: Ethical Consumer)

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