Agricultural workers’ rights abuses in Spain

Delia McGrath from La Via Campesina in Spain reveals the terrible conditions that agricultural workers face on farms in southern Spain.

Nijar, one of the biggest municipalities in Spain, extends from arid rolling scrubland to the pristine beaches of the Cabo de Gata natural park. In the last twenty years or so, a sea of plastic has encroached eastwards, and the natural landscape now disappears under a tide of poly-tunnels. The small family-run greenhouses growing peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, beans and melons for the Northern European supermarkets are gone. Now, big corporations, often with international finance, construct massive, state-of-the-art structures and the earth is mined for water. Every year, they export €283 million worth of produce to the UK, much of which goes to the biggest supermarkets.

Their gigantic greenhouses absorb a daily stream of workers from Morocco, sub-Saharan Africa and, decreasingly, from Eastern Europe and Andalusia. Shanty towns have grown up, periodically razed by the local councils. Uninhabitable buildings, often with no water supply, are divided up and rented out to house the immigrants who continue to arrive, risking their lives on precarious crafts organised by mafias that use the proximity of Andalusia to Africa to profit from the journey. The situation was first exposed in the UK in 2011. Yet little has changed since then.

Image: The greenhouses of El Ejido
Credit: NASA, The greenhouses of El Ejido, Almeria, from space

Among these greenhouses, and the associated plants that package the vegetables ready for transportation, an old red ex-fire service van, a gift from a German solidarity organisation, makes its way daily. In the driver’s seat is José, of the small independent trade union SOC SAT (Union of agricultural workers/Union of Andalusian workers). He is usually accompanied by a handful of other people, often sacked workers. They approach a particular company, where they have been called because of the flouting of minimum conditions. The van pulls up at the gates, they climb out, sometimes with placards and flags. Debates are held with other workers; sometimes irate bosses or managers come out and argue, sometimes the police are called. 

The same story is heard over and over: the minimum salary is not paid, the workers’ national insurance contribution is not paid for all the days worked, no rest break, no holiday pay, no transport costs, many hours extra worked but no overtime paid. 

What is the current situation for agricultural workers in southern Spain?

On 21st January, a twenty-seven-year-old worker died following exposure to agricultural chemicals on one of Nijar’s farms. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. SOC-SAT says that labourers are often expected to continue working whilst chemicals are being sprayed in the greenhouses, without safety equipment, and are even expected to take breaks and eat lunches there.

Recently, the eye of the storm has centred on Godoy Hortalizas (see main image above), the Spanish supplier for Nationwide Produce PLC – a company with links in the UK to M&S and others. In January, Godoy workers voted to strike indefinitely, stating that the company was avoiding paying the minimum basic salary and allowing poor working conditions, including unsafe use of agricultural chemicals. Many workers had joined the trade union and elections for a representative had recently been scheduled. SOC-SAT says that the company lawyer tried to stop them taking place and that, on the day of the elections, there was physical and verbal intimidation but, of course, the right to unionise is protected by law. After just three days, the strike was successful, with the company agreeing to a labour agreement protecting wages, working hours and transportation.

José hopes that the outcome will not just help those immediately involved, but will “have positive effects for other workers and repercussions in the sector” as a whole.

A worker in Nijar is commonly paid between €32 and €38 for an eight-hour day, overtime is not always paid as such nor might the relevant contributions be made to the social security scheme. The 20-minute morning break for a sandwich is often not allowed. The last wage agreement for Almeria was negotiated with the big unions in 2013, ran out in 2015 and has remained frozen ever since, at €46.72 for an eight-hour day.

Back in the office, there is a queue of workers; people who have been sacked because they have joined the trade union or dared to voice a grievance. SOC-SAT Almeria used to process about 200 to 300 cases a year. Now it is approaching 800. At a government level, there appears to be little desire for change, no increase in the teams of work inspection, who, normally accompanied by the police, make unannounced visits to workplaces to check if all employees are registered. Farm owners are intertwined on a local level with councils, businesses, and politicians, and abroad, with foreign companies and capital. 

What has gone wrong in Almeria?

The large institutional trade unions have the funding and the infrastructure to make inroads into the situation, but they stay on the margins, not using their power as a counterweight to the power of the capital in the area. And all this against a backdrop of racism and xenophobia as exemplified by the extreme right party Vox, which, in December, won 12 seats in the Andalusian parliament. Their stronghold is in El Ejido, the heart of plastic country. 

It is estimated that Almeria, as a province, has more than 30% of its economy undeclared: the majority of this economy is formed of illegal immigrants, who can be easily exploited and lack protection by the law. Ironically, if the immigrants stopped work, or went back to their countries, the salad industry would collapse.

José states that the system of declaring days worked at the end of the month by the company for national insurance purposes is the backbone of the main fraud committed against both the state and the employees. He says that this is how fraudulent evidence is presented to quality certifiers like Global GAP, Naturland, and BioSuisse. Supermarkets use these schemes for assurance that their suppliers are meeting minimum labour requirements. The certifiers see wage slips that show that a person has worked x days in the month, with the necessary contributions paid by the employers. But, in fact, s/he has often worked for many more undeclared days and hours daily, which will never contribute to their pension or other benefits. In this way, “Global GAP is whitewashing the exploitation in agriculture in Almeria” he baldly states.

How to expose and change this situation in Almeria? 

If they are to follow basic legal requirements, the government must provide more work inspection teams, strengthen trade unionism in the work places, and adapt the model of trade union representation in the workplace itself. 

José says that pressure on the importers is very important. The big companies must be asked to revise their protocol when checking that basic conditions and wage agreements are being met. The system in place now justifies fraudulent practices, he says. As he says, the certifiers, or indeed anyone trying to get to the real situation, have to be able to speak to the workers away from the hearing and control of the management, outside the work place, where they are not frightened to relate the real labour conditions, and only then will the fraud that these companies are perpetuating be exposed.

Unfortunately, both the supermarkets and their suppliers lack transparency about where their agricultural products come from. Often, supermarkets buy through an importer, rather than the farm itself, which makes it even harder to know the origin of the produce. Of the nine large supermarkets in the UK, M&S alone publishes a factory list, and even this does not extend back to the farms where produce is being grown. Consumers must ask supermarkets to disclose who they are buying their produce from, and to put pressure on their suppliers to do the same.
 

Image: Jose from SOC SAT talking to workers
José from the SOC SAT union talking to walkers on their lunch break about their grievances

I ask José to now tell us the good news, the positive changes. “Are there any?” he asks. He worked in the area in 2002/3 and returned in 2016 to find very little improvement in the vegetable growers’ conditions. José mentions Glinwell PLC, a company that sells to Tesco. He says that, although Tesco had intervened in a previous dispute, some conditions for the workers in general do not meet the minimum requirements of the law. 
He then goes on to say that there are now workers who are brave enough to stand up and start to organise themselves. Many of the immigrants have already lived there for a decade or two, their children are growing up and they find they cannot live on the salary they receive. Over the years, they have also gained in knowledge and experience. He also says that pressure on the big marketing companies works, to date especially in the organic sector. He cites the examples of Eurosol and Biosabor, where better conditions were won thanks to the pressure on the marketing companies in the north of Europe.

Laura, working in the SOC-SAT office, lifts her head up from her paperwork to say that the union SOC SAT is, today, on the “front page” in Almeria – not of the newspapers, but in the minds of big business. SOC SAT is a “boil on their backsides”, because of the action they are taking on behalf of the workers, she clarifies.

What could supermarkets do?

Co-op, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, ASDA, ALDI and LIDL all support the Spanish Ethical Trade Forums, a supplier-led regional initiative aiming to drive improvements in working conditions.

This is clearly not enough. They also could:

  • Publish complete lists of suppliers, so that when issues arise there is greater transparency about efforts to address them.
  • Put pressure on their suppliers to publish 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 work places, 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. 
  • Engage with agricultural unions like SOC-SAT and put pressure on their suppliers to improve conditions when issues arise.

What you can do as a consumer

Be choosy about the food you eat; ask questions, where does it come from, how is it produced? Don’t buy stuff that comes from too far or from a country where labour conditions are not guaranteed.

Write/phone/email the big supermarkets, as an individual or, better still, through your consumers’ group or other association. They are sensitive to the possibility of bad press. You can contact the big supermarkets on Twitter or via email on our company profile pages:

If you speak Spanish or Arabic, come and help out! Fundraise for something specific, like a trade union worker’s salary, or petrol for the red van. Find out more on the SOC SAT website or email them directly at socalmeria@yahoo.es

* After this article was published, Delia got in touch to say that pressure from Ethical Consumer helped the workers at Godoy Hortalizas demand a fair Labour Agreement. Workers from the company were striking as the article was being written. As part of the research, Ethical Consumer contacted all the major UK supermarkets about the problems that SOC-SAT and Delia raised. In light of this, Delia says, one of the supermarkets put pressure on Godoy Hotalizas to enter negotiations with the union and the striking workers. The company ultimately agreed to meet of the workers' demands.

We have had a number of responses from Supermarkets that you can read here. 

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