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Case study of an unethical agricultural producer in southern Spain: Biosabor

The agricultural sector in southern Spain has long been implicated in workers’ rights abuses. Organic fruit and vegetable producer Biosabor has been singled out by workers as one of the most prolific offenders.

Across southern Spain, predominantly migrant workers are living in conditions that the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty has described as a human tragedy.

These workers have moved to Spain in order to earn money working at farms that produce fruit and vegetables that end up on the shelves of European and UK supermarkets.

Many companies in the region have been accused of illegally violating laws designed to protect workers. Biosabor, an organic fruit and vegetable producer based in Nijar, Almeria, is one company that workers have highlighted as particularly exploitative.

Allegations made against Biosabor include paying under minimum wage, falsifying time sheets, unfair dismissals, keeping long-term staff on temporary contracts, and poor treatment of staff by management.

In this article we examine:

  • Biosabor’s reputation as an ethical organic producer
  • Allegations against Biosabor, including interviews with former workers
  • How consumers can take action
  • UK supermarket links to Biosabor
  • Triodos Bank's links to Biosabor

Biosabor: an ethical organic producer?

In 2019 Biosabor received an award from the President of the Parliament in Andalusia for being a “leading exporter of organic produce that generates more than 500 direct jobs, all from its commitment to creating value for society, respect for the environment, corporate social responsibility and a spirit of continuous improvement towards excellence through work ethics, integrity and honesty”.

Biosabor claims that workers are entitled to a break every 2.5 hours, and says it “always offers the best possible working conditions where workers feel comfortable, contributing favorably to their mood and performance.” Its website highlights its certifications such as EU organic, GlobalGAP, British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Smeta.

Workers however, claim that Biosabor violates basic workers’ rights.

Allegations against Biosabor

Interviews with former workers

Ethical Consumer spoke with several people who claim to have worked at Biosabor for several years.

Omar’s story – fired for refusing to lie on his time sheet during Ramadan

Omar claims to have worked regularly at a Biosabor subsidiary from 2009-2020, yet was never given a permanent contract. In Almeria if a temporary worker works for the same company for three consecutive fruit or vegetable harvests, the company is legally obliged to provide them with a permanent contract (meaning they must be offered work during harvest periods.)

Omar claims that the company often falsifies workers’ time sheets, stating for example that they worked around 11-15 days when they actually worked 28-30 days per month. He alleges that this helped to conceal the fact workers were paid under minimum wage, and enabled Biosabor to avoid making adequate social security payments.

Omar claims that he was fired for refusing to sign a falsified time sheet, which had been requested by the Spanish Labour Inspectorate. Omar claims that Javier Belmonte, head of the Biosabor subsidiary of the same name and brother of Biosabor CEO Francisco Belmonte, demanded that he sign a falsified time sheet.

Ethical Consumer listened to a concealed audio recording of a conversation allegedly between Javier Belmonte (the employer) and Omar. The employer repeatedly asks the other to sign a time sheet. Omar says that the time sheet says he worked from 8.30am-11pm, but he actually worked until at least 1am. Omar says he cannot lie before God by signing the falsified time sheet, especially during Ramadan. The employer says that it’s not a matter of lying before God – it’s just a matter of lying on paper. After Omar still refuses to sign, the employer says their relationship is “broken” and walks away.

Omar claims that shortly after he refused to sign the time sheet, he was fired. Omar claims that Javier Belmonte then fired the entire staff of his farm, although the harvest was far from over.

“Shortly after I refused to sign the time sheet, they sent 30 people to the street – they fired us all.”

He believes workers were fired to prevent them speaking out before a Labour Inspectorate visit.

Luisa’s story – paid 4 euros per hour as an undocumented migrant

Worker Luisa claims that she was contracted to work 8 hours per day, 6 days per week at Biosabor, but that in reality she worked an average of 8 to 9 hours per day 6 days per week. Some days she worked 10 hours. The worker claims she was not paid for extra hours worked, and did not receive paid breaks.

“When I began working at the company in 2016/17 I was undocumented and they paid me 4 euros per hour. I worked so many hours. It was very hard” She states that in 2019 she was paid around 5.5 euros per hour, and near the end of 2019 this increased to 6 euros per hour– still significantly below minimum wage (7.55 euros per hour in 2022).

Luisa says that she had a fixed contract with Biosabor, but that the company changed this to a temporary contract once they found out that she had a serious illness. Luisa says that this meant she wasn’t entitled to paid sick leave.

Luisa stated,

“Lots of people want to speak out, but they are afraid. Lots of workers don’t even know they’re entitled to rights. Our objective isn’t to shut any business down – we just want Biosabor to respect workers’ rights.”

Luisa says she personally knows six workers who have spoken out against the company. She claims that Biosabor has a lawyer who is consulted when workers denounce the company.

Pablo’s story – denied job security

Pablo says he worked at Biosabor for eight hours per day, six days per week, from 2017 until 2020. “They never gave me a fixed contract, even after three years.”

Pablo looked troubled as he explained that he wasn’t called back to work for Biosabor this year. “I don’t know why they haven’t called me back to work this year. I’ve worked there for three years.”

He states that as recently as July 2020 the company did not pay a higher rate for overtime hours.

Pablo claims that workers weren’t given masks when working with chemicals, nor adequate PPE or work uniforms, even though he says these were featured in promotional videos of the company.

He says “Biosabor doesn’t respect workers.”

Biosabor’s response

Ethical Consumer contacted Biosabor for comment.

Biosabor states that information published in this article is "false and partisan", and says there are several control and certification bodies that continually audit its work.

Person using penknife to harvest cucumber
Salad crops like cucumbers and tomatoes are grown by Biosabor

Supermarket responses to Belgian investigation criticising Biosabor

In January 2021 the Belgian TV channel RTBF published an article and YouTube video investigating supermarket supply chains.

RTBF collected testimonies from agricultural workers at different companies across Almeria, southern Spain. Workers reported abuses such as working excessive hours without a break. One stated “When we do not work fast enough, the employers threaten to fire us.”

RTBF claims it found evidence linking three supermarkets (Aldi, Carrefour and Delhaize) to Spanish companies that it believed did not respect workers rights: Biosabor, Campojoyma and Haciendas Bio.

In response to the findings, in early 2021 Aldi Belgium suspended its relationship with Biosabor for one year. Aldi Germany followed suit, also suspending its relationship with the company.

J Sevestre, spokesperson for Aldi Belgium, stated: “We have identified practices that are not consistent with how ALDI Belgium operates. That’s why we have decided to immediately cease all collaboration with Spanish producer Biosabor”. The specific evidence collated by RTBF in relation to Biosabor does not appear to have been made public.

Carrefour responded by stating that it valued workers rights and would be carrying out additional audits of the company. Delhaize stated that it would begin carrying out unannounced audits.

Aldi Germany also suspended operations with Biosabor for one year. One 2016 article stated that 40% of Biosabor's harvest was destined for Germany.

UK supermarket links to Biosabor

The Spanish union SAT is calling for supermarkets and other companies to cut ties with Biosabor until it improves working conditions.

It is possible that several leading UK supermarkets have Biosabor in their supply chain, though Biosabor has not published information about which supermarkets it supplies.

In spring/summer 2022 Ocado and Abel & Cole stocked Biosabor’s Organic Gazpacho product. We informed each company about the allegations via email.

Ethical Consumer received the following response from Abel & Cole: “Abel & Cole are committed to acting ethically and with integrity, both internally and with the suppliers we deal with. We’re a proud member of the B Corp community, dedicated to using business as a force for good, including supporting local communities and workers’ rights. We take seriously any concerns communicated to us and have taken the decision to remove this product from sale.”

No response was received from Ocado, however the product has since been marked as ‘Out of Stock’ on the Ocado website.

Union calls for Triodos boycott due to its financing of Biosabor

Triodos bank, an Ethical Consumer Best Buy and highest rated company in our guide to ethical current accounts, provides financial services to Biosabor. Biosabor was able to construct a new tomato greenhouse in Almeria, for cultivating organic tomatoes, due to Triodos funding.

Triodos' Minimum Standards for who it lends to states that "Companies should treat all workers - including migrant workers - fairly" in a way that is free from discrimination, and should pay workers "at least a living wage" and "respect a maximum number of working hours".

SAT claims that it sent a report to Triodos two years ago detailing the alleged workers’ rights abuses which show that Biosabor does not meet Triodos’ lending criteria. SAT says that it had a meeting with Triodos Spain in Madrid, but claims that Triodos did not make significant efforts to work with Biosabor to improve the situation.

SAT states “We have already made it clear on several occasions to Triodos that companies it finances have not complied with labour laws. Triodos is financing these companies with money from ethical savers. The facts show Triodos is one more arm of green capitalism. From SAT Almeria we call on all social, trade union, and political organisations to withdraw their funds from Triodos Bank and to protest and issue statements of complaint before Triodos management.”

“As soon as these companies adhere to the law and respect workers’ rights, if they then wish to fund them then fine. But at the moment we believe that these companies don't observe the most basic minimum working conditions, and so should not be eligible to receive funding from Triodos bank.”

SAT is calling for a boycott of Triodos until it suspends operations with Biosabor.

Triodos and transparency

It is only possible to identify the connection between Biosabor and Triodos because of Triodos’ transparency about which companies it works with.

We still consider Triodos to be an ethical alternative when it comes to banking, because no other bank has this level of transparency which makes scrutiny of its partnerships possible.

Ethical Consumer has provided Triodos with information about the alleged workers rights abuses at Biosabor since August 2020. In 2022 Ethical Consumer wrote a report for Triodos detailing the workers’ rights abuses allegations which was reviewed by CEO Bevis Watts. Despite the evidence provided in the report, Triodos continues to defend its relationship with the company.

Watts stated “We have again considered our banking relationship and the evidence that Biosabor has provided continues to indicate its working practices and overall positive impact are aligned with Triodos Bank’s mission. We have noticed workers from other companies joining Biosabor due to above-average labour conditions. Biosabor obtained renewals of GRASP and SMETA certifications. We have not identified the social practices mentioned in the report during Triodos Bank’s visits to Biosabor. Biosabor has established an internal whistle-blower channel. Further, Triodos Bank Spain’s relationship is with Consabor, a subsidiary of Biosabor, not Biosabor directly. I wanted to also take this opportunity to reassure you of Triodos Bank’s commitment to organic farming, as well as the need for legal and dignified working conditions for all”.

No response was provided from Triodos regarding the interviews Ethical Consumer conducted with former Biosabor workers.

Consumer action

If you want to express concerns to Triodos about its ongoing relationship with Biosabor and ask it to cut ties with the company, you can get in touch via email or Twitter @triodosuk or other contact methods specified on the Triodos website.

One example of a much bigger problem

Biosabor is one of many companies accused of exploiting agricultural workers in southern Spain, but SAT union claims it is among the worst.

Read more about the campaign to clean up the UK supermarket supply chain in southern Spain.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of workers