Campaign: The fight for agricultural workers’ rights in southern Spain

Ethical Consumer is asking supermarkets to take responsibility for the rights of workers who grow the produce they sell.

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

Ethical Consumer is calling on UK supermarkets to act and make sure that their suppliers uphold workers’ rights.

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. 

We have 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 the local union has reported physical, verbal and legal threats to stop the members electing representatives.

Some workers have been sacked for striking and the 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.

In May 2020, we also launched a Crowdfunder with the local union SOC-SAT and the members’ organisation Collective of African Workers, to support those confined to the shanty towns, without running water during the coronavirus crisis. Thanks to the support of our readers, we raised over £25,000.

Image: protest banner workers rights almeria spain

What should supermarkets do?

Although all the major UK supermarkets claim to have adequate policies in place, they are clearly failing to protect those in their supply chains in some instances. 

We are demanding that supermarkets:

  • Publish complete lists of suppliers, tracing back to the farms they source from.
  • Establish a whistle blowing hotline and make this available throughout their fruit and vegetable supply chains, including to farm level and agricultural unions such as SOC-SAT.
  • Regularly engage with agricultural unions like SOC-SAT and local NGOs by providing them with grievance mechanisms.
  • Commit to fully investigating issues reported by unions and NGOs and demand that suppliers redress the problems raised.
  • Put pressure on their suppliers to publish a list of the farms from which they buy produce.
  • Put pressure on international certifiers like Global GAP, Naturland, and BioSuisse to improve their audit processes: engage with workers outside of workplaces, away from the hearing and control of the management, where they are not frightened to relate the real labour conditions; and engage with local unions.
  • Put pressure on international certifiers like Global GAP, Naturland, and BioSuisse to establish a whistle blowing hotline and make this available throughout their fruit and vegetable supply chains, including to farm level and agricultural unions such as SOC-SAT.

We asked a number of supermarkets to respond to the situation in Almeria, including listing any measures that they take in order to avoid workers rights issues.

What can you do?

Email your nearest supermarket and ask them to commit to making the above changes.

You can find links to email each of the supermarkets on their company profile page.

Tesco / ASDA / Lidl / Morrisons / Aldi / Co-op / Sainsbury’s / Waitrose / M&S

spitou mendy

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 and cut back some other benefit to increase their profits.

So the 'low cost' type worker will continue to exist, obviously here in Almeria, but not just in Almeria, wherever you are. 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. I am living it now and that is it.”

Our coverage of workers rights abuses on farms in Southern Spain:

What the supermarkets say

Our investigations over the last two years suggest that all major UK supermarkets source produce from Almeria and Huelva in southern Spain. Over this period, we have repeatedly been in contact with the supermarkets to try and find out while they're failing to address a problem which has been widely recognised for the last 20 years.

Where we've managed to find the links between farms in Almeria or Huelva where abuses are known and produce being sold in the UK, we've also contacted supermarkets to ask them to make change.

On several occasions UK supermarkets have stepped in to demand that companies in their supply chains stop abusing workers' rights. However, clearly, they are not doing enough to ensure that workers' rights are respected in the long-term.

You can read some of their responses below.

Supermarket Responses

"We are committed to establishing long-term, open and fair relationships with our suppliers, ensuring they have the skills and capacity to manage their workers responsibly. We engage collaboratively to provide additional support to suppliers in areas where there are industry issues.
We publish information on our website about our sustainable sourcing and have made progress on publishing our supply chain information. You can read more about these here and here.

We have a hotline called Rightline and request our direct suppliers also publish this where workers can easily access it. We know it’s important for workers to have a voice, and we are working with farmers in our Fairly Traded tea pilot across Malawi and Rwanda on an innovative approach which enable this.
Our teams and auditors regularly engage with workers, including union reps on visits and we are also part of the Ethical Trading Initiative through which we engage with unions and NGOs.

We recognise that certifications can only go so far and need to be strengthened and we are part of the Global GAP GRASP committee to ensure this happens. We also regularly share feedback with other certifications such as the Rainforest Alliance and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

We work very closely with our supply base in Spain to ensure we understand the challenges they face, working with them to drive continuous improvement. No suppliers are approved until they have been assessed via visits and independent audits. Where an issue is found, we will always aim to work with our supplier to resolve it.

Since 2015, we have helped fund and support the Spain Ethical Trade Supplier Forums, alongside other retailers and importers. The aim of the Forums is to improve Spanish growers’ understanding of labour and human rights issues and raise standards within the horticulture industry by building on best practice from companies within the sector. It also creates a space for companies, NGOs and trade unions to discuss approaches to key labour challenges and to promote collaboration between organisations. Over the last few years, producers have received training from local authorities, labour inspectors and the International Office for Migration on how to address risks and ensure that labour standards are applied within their own operations and with their labour providers.

In 2018, the Forums launched three working groups across the key sourcing regions of Murcia, Almeria and Huelva. The Working Groups, which are led by suppliers, focus on regional specific issues such as worker accommodation, transport, recruitment of temporary workers, creating a good worker induction programme, worker committees and traceability of smallholder labour practices."

“We have been engaging with growers and suppliers in Spain for a number of years to help improve industry practice. This has primarily been through the ‘Spanish Ethical Forums (part funded by Tesco) which aim to raise awareness of labour issues within the supply base and build capacity to address them... We expect, and support, our key suppliers in the region to conduct due diligence to ensure learning from the forums are implemented and fair working conditions are maintained.”

"We respect human rights and have comprehensive processes in place to ensure that everyone in our supply chain who makes, grows and supplies our products is treated fairly.

We also work closely with other retailers and suppliers to address human rights concerns through initiatives such as Stronger Together and the Food Network for Ethical Trade (FNET).

In addition, we would draw your attention to the following:


    • We operate a confidential, independent Alert Line which allows suppliers and employees to raise concerns at any time, in any language and all calls are fully investigated


    • Our processes require suppliers to detail their entire produce supply chain to Aldi via a data-sharing platform, providing continuous visibility of all our produce farms 


    • Our certification and auditing approach is detailed in our modern slavery statement on our website. We are also part of a Retailer Auditing Alignment group which shares best practice and is in dialogue with Global GAP to try to improve its human rights requirements in audits


    • Please visit our modern slavery statement for full details."

"We do not currently reveal the specific locations of our farms for privacy reasons. However, we are fully transparent about our supplier network and regularly publish our tier 1 factory lists, which are available on our Partnership website.

Our belief is that we can have the biggest impact by empowering suppliers with the skills and tools needed to implement their own effective internal grievance mechanisms, which in turn provides workers with a platform to have their issues addressed at a more local level.


In the UK we support the GLAA, the Modern Slavery Hotline, and the Salvation Army’s hotline, and are Strategic Partners of ISSARA, which runs worker hotlines for migrant workers.

We work regularly with local trade unions and NGOs to ensure effective grievance mechanisms are in place across our supply chain.

We are fully committed to investigating reported issues and have a number of safeguarding mechanisms in place to prevent risk. We expect the very highest standards from all our suppliers and work hard to ensure those standards are consistently applied across our supply chain.

We will only source produce from suppliers that we know and trust. As mentioned, we do not currently reveal the specific locations of our farms for privacy reasons. However, we are fully transparent about our supplier network and regularly publish our tier 1 factory lists, which are available on our Partnership website.

We work closely with organisations like Global GAP and have a number of key initiatives to ensure workers across our supply chain have a platform to raise concerns in a safe and open environment. 

We support effective internal grievance mechanisms and work hard to ensure all workers across our supply chain are equipped with the skills and tools needed to address any issues they might face.


For more information, please see our latest Modern Slavery Statement."

"The welfare of workers within our supply chain is a priority and we expect all suppliers to meet our ethical sourcing code.

Co-op, alongside many other major UK retailers, does purchase fruit, vegetable and salad crops from the Almeria region, and therefore we have a number steps in place to ensure workers are treated fairly and to ensure greater transparency: 


    • We have established, robust ethical trade monitoring and capacity building programmes in place in the region to tackle issues faced by migrant workers directly. We are also working with our suppliers and with other retailers, to ensure high standards are met. The Co-op requires all our suppliers to meet our Code of Conduct, which is based on the ETI Base Code and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Our suppliers are required to demonstrate compliance against these Codes and to provide evidence of continuous improvement in worker welfare.


    • We are committed to greater transparency in our supply chain and earlier this year we published our eight priority human rights focus areas with includes Spain, and as part of our Future of Food ambition we have commitment to share the sites we source from and the human rights risks we face with members and customers by 2020.


    • Since 2012, Co-op has played a pivotal role in developing supplier-led regional forums in Spain to drive improvements in working conditions. Equally, since 2015, a large number of UK retailers have funded and supported the Spain Ethical Trade Supplier Forums, which is a coalition of retailers and importers committed to working with growers in Southern Spain to develop and share best practice. Over the last few years, producers in Southern Spain have received training from local authorities, labour inspectors and the International Office for Migration on how to address risks and ensure that labour standards are applied within their own operations and with their labour providers.


    • In 2018, the Forums launched three working groups across the key sourcing regions of Murcia, Almeria and Huelva. The Working Groups, which are led by suppliers, focus on regional specific issues such as worker accommodation, transport, recruitment of temporary workers, creating a good worker induction programme, worker committees and traceability of smallholder labour practices. These forums provide a safe space for suppliers to share experiences and good practices, openly discuss challenges and work collaboratively to improve working conditions. 

Further information on Co-op’s broader ethical trade programme can be found on our website."

“As part of our business contracts, all of our suppliers are required to commit to our strict Code of Conduct, as well as implementing social and environmental standards, such as those defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. We also monitor the performance of our suppliers against our expectations using the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange platform (Sedex) and Global G.A.P. GRASP social risk assessment. In addition to this, we work closely with suppliers and growers to ensure that we fully understand the challenges they face and help to develop practical solutions. This is facilitated through the Spanish Ethical Trade Forums, an initiative that we fund and support in collaboration with other UK retailers and suppliers. Focus areas over the last year have included helping suppliers to build responsible recruitment practices, improving accommodation standards and supporting effective worker committees.”

“We recognise our responsibility to buy, produce and sell our products in an ethical and sustainable manner. We are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and have an established approach to respecting human rights and tackling labour exploitation in our supply chains. In relation to this particular issue, we are active participants in the ETI working group on Modern Slavery and co-funded their research on human rights due diligence in Spanish agriculture.”

 “We work collaboratively to support our Spanish suppliers and have organised supplier forums in Southern Spain to raise awareness of our ethical trading standards and to provide growers with practical advice on meeting these standards, including the monitoring of labour agencies. We also have a dedicated team based in Almeria that works directly with our suppliers, ensuring they comply with a number of third-party standards such as GlobalGAP and Sedex.”

"Spain is an important sourcing country for us and we source from a number of regions including Almeria. We work closely with our suppliers and growers to ensure the M&S products are being ethically and sustainably sourced as outlined in our Global Sourcing Principles and our Select Grower Field to Fork programme – which you can read more about here.

We have long term partnerships with our growers and suppliers that allow us to be fully transparent in our supply chain and to support change and drive improvement. Additionally, M&S have collaborated to support the establishment of regular Spanish Ethical Trade Forums, which provide growers and suppliers support on ethical issues including exchange and learning from peers, importers and retailers."

"Whole Foods Market has long-standing programs in place to address human rights and labour issues in our supply chain, including instituting programs like our Whole Trade Guarantee that ensure fair and safe working conditions for suppliers across the globe. We remain committed to and continue to invest in, supply chain transparency and ethical sourcing. 

In addition, we wanted to draw your attention to the below:

On January 1, 2020, we introduced our Supplier Code of Conduct, which formalises our strong commitment to ensuring that the products and services we provide are produced in a way that respects human rights and the environment, and that the suppliers we engage with share this commitment. Our Supplier Code of Conduct details the requirements and expectations for suppliers in our supply chain, and their commitment to these standards is required as a condition of doing business with us.

We’ve been offering fairly traded products for decades. In 2007, Whole Foods Market created its Whole Trade Guarantee to highlight suppliers’ commitment to ethical trade, working conditions and the environment. To support better wages and worker welfare, the company partners with third-party certifiers, including Fair Trade International and Rainforest Alliance. Whole Trade Guarantee product purchases help fund community projects — such as schools and health clinics – determined by the workers themselves. "

Ongoing reports

Ethical Consumer will be publishing ongoing reports about the situation in Almeria.

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