Conditions for farm workers in southern Spain became yet more dire as the coronavirus spread through the region.
Crowded workplaces, a lack of hygiene and an air of secrecy, with some workers threatened with the sack for talking about the virus, are just some of the issues that farm workers reported during the peak of the pandemic.
Fired after appearing to catch Covid
One female employee used to work at Cuna de Platero, a Huelva-based company that supplies strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries to several European countries. “Before the pandemic everything was perfect for me – management treated me very well and I was regarded highly, being promoted each year, thanks to the work I was putting in. But falling unwell was the worst thing that could have happened to me.”
“I had virus symptoms and was unwell for 27 days, and stayed in quarantine at home. When I returned to work HR asked me to please not tell anyone I was unwell with coronavirus symptoms. They said if I told my colleagues they wouldn’t look at me the same. They told me to say I had been ill with depression, and not tell the truth. I went back to work and an hour and a half later they called me back to the office and fired me. I didn’t expect it at all.”
“There was another worker that a similar thing happened to as well – and management didn’t warn a single worker that there had been cases of contagion.”
Working conditions during the pandemic
Workers also reported lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
“When everything began, they didn’t give us gloves or masks and we were working less than one metre apart from each other. It was only when the Civil Guard came that they started putting measures in place, like masks and gloves.”
The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, has always lived in Huelva and worked at Cuna de Platero for three years.
Cuna de Platero said in a statement: “We would like to state that since the beginning of the health crisis caused by COVID-19, our cooperative has put in place all the necessary protocols and preventative measures recommended by the health authorities to guarantee the security and health of all of the people working here […] In spite of the difficulties, our team has worked in a responsible way.”
A second anonymous worker, originally from Seville, worked at the Huelva-based company Surexport for two years. Surexport is a berry company that at the time of writing featured the Tesco logo on its website and was said to be one of the supermarket’s main berry suppliers.
Workers crowded together as they entered the Surexport warehouse each day. One said “Social distancing means nothing here.”
“The first year I worked at Surexport for a few months and it was a very good experience, so I decided to come back and work here again. This year has been a completely different experience. It’s been so bad.”
The worker said that one time during the height of the pandemic she was feeling unwell and dizzy. She fell over and asked the person in charge if she could go outside. She was dismayed at their response. “They yelled at me. I don’t like the way they have treated us.”
She continued, “There have been various colleagues who have caught coronavirus. By this I mean they had symptoms, or were in quarantine. The business never told workers this. Workers shared the information but those in charge threatened to fire them if they spoke about the issue.”
The interpretations of the company management and the anonymous worker appear to be conflicting. There is also the possibility that this was a one-off instance of one supervisor not following Surexport’s policies.
Unions standing up for workers
Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha is working to challenge the workers’ rights abuses.
Ana Pinto used to work on the farms, and is now part of workers’ rights collective Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha. As she is vocal about workers’ rights abuses, no companies will hire her. “Since I began publicly denouncing what’s happening, all doors closed to me.”
Pinto recently began working with a cooperative of lawyers that asked her to be a mediator in a project that offers free legal advice to workers in the sector.
Pinto stated “We’ve been contacted by workers from three of the largest red fruits companies in Huelva, frightened because businesses prohibit them talking about coronavirus. They believed colleagues were getting infected and the business was hiding it.”
One worker told Pinto that managers were threatening to fine workers hundreds of euros if they speak about coronavirus – such as discussing medical records showing possible virus symptoms. This means employees with symptoms that self-isolate could be fined if they try to warn other colleagues with thom they have been working in close contact that they may have been at risk.
“We do not condone any supervisor or person in authority at Surexport yelling at or threatening any worker, this behaviour is not acceptable to us, and we have a number of procedures in place that workers can anonymously report any harsh or unfair treatment. Before this complaint, nothing has been reported to us of that nature from any of our farms.
“The human resources department has added the figures of the covid cases on each site, plus the quarantine situation in the height of the pandemic. Huelva at that time was not testing, just isolating if symptoms were present.
“During our initial lockdown, we helped the local government with supplies and supported our workers instead of making redundancies. We have strong roots with the local community and high level of seasonal returnees. Surexport we take serious precautions against Covid-19. We are regularly inspected by customers and by the public institutions and all of them confirm that Surexport is correctly handling this global pandemic. Last week, we received the visit from DPS, which has confirmed our correct response to Covid-19, including the respect of social distancing rules in our company. We also have protocols to make sure that supervisors act correctly. Surexport also enclosed documentation related to Covid-19 procedures and management.
Cuna de Platero
“We are a primary sector cooperative, that grows and sells essential produce, and therefore have continued working with all of the preventative measures in place to ensure the provision of fruit to the population.
“The situation for us is complicated, as it is for the whole population and all social and economic sectors. We would like to highlight and thank all the people who make up our cooperative … We have utilised all the tools available to us to support those around us during the pandemic. The cooperative’s farmers, since the beginning, offered all the means available to them to help disinfect streets in the municipality. We donated fruit to social organisations, which was distributed to hospitals and people who most needed it. In the hardest moments of the health crisis we have donated PPI and protection materials to nearby medical centres.”
*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 and Pixabay)