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Groundbreaking workers’ rights model to be explored in Spain

When it comes to improving working conditions in global supply chains, the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model has achieved unparalleled success. 

We are pleased to announce that funding has been secured to explore WSR in UK supermarkets’ Spanish supply chains.

Lee este artículo en español / read this article in Spanish.

One year ago, we published the report Produce of Exploitation, UK Supermarkets and Migrant Labour in Southern Spain, which revealed rampant labour exploitation in UK supermarkets' fruit and vegetable supply chains. 

It showed that migrant workers in Spain, who pick produce for UK supermarkets, routinely face abuses including underpayment, harassment, and dangerous and unsafe working conditions. 

One worker, Maria, told us "Lots of people want to speak out, but they are afraid". Those who speak out risk of being harassed, fired, and even deported.

The report received worldwide press attention, and brought all UK supermarkets to the table for the first time to discuss the issues with us, including the reports' findings and recommendations.

Supermarket-led initiatives have proven ineffective

Our report made clear the failures of multi-stakeholder initiatives and voluntary corporate commitments to protect workers’ rights. For decades these have failed to address the issues workers face. 

Our research showed that UK supermarkets have many codes of conduct and a range of voluntary commitments and certifications. Yet none of them has substantially improved conditions for workers, and often such superficial remedies prevent the adoption of more effective models. 

What were the report's recommendations?

The report recommended that UK supermarkets publish all supplier names to the farm level in southern Spain (a step which no supermarket has yet taken).

But the report’s principal recommendation was the exploration of Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) as a model that has “been successful in addressing insidious rights violations” in other industries where abuses are widespread. 

It's a recommendation that only workers can progress, and we're very pleased to have secured funding with a range of inspiring partners to make this happen. The securing of funding to explore WSR represents a major step forward in implementing this key recommendation of the report. 

Someone touching tomatoes in shop
All UK supermarkets source from southern Spain, where workers' rights abuses are widespread.

What is the focus of the new project?

The project will focus on working conditions for farmworkers, including migrant workers, in Spain’s fruit and vegetable industry. Project partners include the Spanish union SAT Almeria, the US-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network, and us (Ethical Consumer Research Association).

“Workers in the Almeria region of Spain produce many of the fruits and vegetables sold in UK supermarkets,” said José García Cuevas, spokesperson at the SAT Almeria union. “Yet they experience wage theft and widespread exploitation. We are looking for ways to address the root causes of the issues we see in the fields every day."

This grant will pay for workers in Florida's tomato sector, who pioneered the WSR model, to travel to Spain and spend time with a local union to see if there is potential to start developing a WSR programme there. It will enable SAT and the farmworkers of Almeria to explore what a binding, enforceable WSR programme could look like in their industry given how it has transformed other industries. It also funds online meetings for worker-to-worker learning for a year and a half.

This will be the first exploration of the WSR model in the European Union. 

Ethical Consumer team members will also go to Spain, and meet the workers we have been collaborating with for five years for the first time in person.

What is the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model?

The WSR model is based on six interconnected principles, bringing together:

  • A code of conduct created by workers
  • legally binding agreements signed by brands at the top of supply chains
  • worker-driven enforcement mechanisms
  • worker education
  • a 24/7 complaint support line
  • comprehensive independent monitoring, which results in a mechanism that is trusted by workers.

The first WSR model was the Fair Food Program. It was created by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and now protects tens of thousands of farmworkers across the US, Chile, and South Africa. 

There are just a handful of programmes now operating in the supply chains of big brands, for example:

  • US-based farmworkers implemented a programme in Taco Bell's supply chain
  • Canada-based dairy workers implemented a programme in Ben & Jerry's supply chain
  • Lesotho-based denim workers implemented a programme in Levi's supply chain.

You can read more about the WSR programmes operating worldwide on the WSR-Network website. We also spotlight the denim WSR programme in our ethical shopping guide to jeans.

Worker to worker education presentation in the Fair Food Programme
A presentation about the Fair Food Programme. Image Reproduced with permission by Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The impact of WSR programmes

In recent years, worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) mechanisms have been recognised as the gold-standard for improving worker protections. 

Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the CIW, says "Florida’s fields were once dubbed ground zero for modern slavery by federal prosecutors. But through the Fair Food Program, we are ushering in a new era of human rights, and have virtually eradicated those abuses on participating farms, transforming those same fields into what one labour expert called ‘the best workplace-monitoring program I’ve seen in the US.'"

The power of worker-to-worker learning

Benitez continues, "As workers ourselves – the men and women who built this new model and experienced this remarkable change – we are excited to continue the dialogue with workers around the globe about how they can transform their industries in similar ways through implementing WSR programs.”

Rafaela Rodriguez, director of strategic partnerships at the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network, says “When worker organisations lead the creation, design and implementation of solutions, the results are truly transformative”. 

“Our members have developed programs that are protecting more than three million working people globally. I’m excited that we have the opportunity to facilitate crucial exchange with the workers in Spain’s produce industry.”

Where is the funding coming from?

The funding for the exploration comes from the Healthy Food Healthy Planet initiative, whose mission is “to steer collective efforts towards achieving systemic change in food systems in Europe.” 

Funding will also go to Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), a UK-based organisation, to support a pilot of the WSR model in the fishing industry. This fishing programme (dubbed the Fair Fish Programme) includes some of the same industry partners who would be involved in the expansion of the WSR model into Spain.

Who are the partners?

Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (SAT) Almería combats labour exploitation in Almería. Its main objectives are social justice, gender equality and well-being of each human and worker. SAT and Ethical Consumer have collaborated to draw attention to exploitation in UK and European supermarkets’ Spanish supply chains since 2019. 

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a worker-based human rights organisation founded in Immokalee, Florida, and committed to improving working conditions through enforceable human rights protections within supply chains. Internationally recognized for its achievements in the field of corporate accountability — with a particular focus on the fight against forced labour and gender-based violence at work — the CIW is built on a foundation of farmworker community organising reinforced by a national consumer network. The CIW is credited with pioneering the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model.

Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network (WSRN) builds understanding of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model among a wide range of relevant actors, provides support and coordination for worker-led efforts to replicate the model, and shifts the paradigm to establish the model as the baseline for workers’ rights programmes within global supply chains.

Ethical Consumer Research Association is an independent, not-for-profit co-operative, founded in 1989 and based in Manchester UK. It is the hub of the ethical consumer movement, helping consumers to shop ethically, campaigners to challenge corporate power and businesses to improve their supply chains. Its mission is to make global businesses more sustainable through consumer pressure. Alongside its website and publication of a bimonthly magazine, Ethical Consumer provides consultancy services to a range of organisations and businesses such as Stop Funding Hate, Amnesty and Co-op Bank.