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Migrants in supermarket supply chains face “horrific” conditions

Fruit and vegetable farms in Spain are routinely breaking eight out of nine basic workers’ rights. Abuses include refusal of legal wages, forced labour, sexual assault and intimidation.

An Ethical Consumer report is calling on UK supermarkets to take immediate steps to protect the rights of migrant agricultural workers in Spain. Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Waitrose are named in the report.

Farm managers in southern Spain have demanded sex in return for employment, confiscated passports so workers can’t ‘escape’, fired workers for trying to unionise or join strikes and penalised workers for going to the toilet.

Workers' rights organisations including Anti-Slavery International, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Leigh Day solicitors and Landworkers’ Alliance have endorsed the report’s findings and call upon UK supermarkets to implement its recommendations.

UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier de Schutter, states “For years, authorities and employers in southern Spain have been content to sit back and watch as migrant workers endure the most horrific, inhumane working conditions”. He continues:

“I urge supermarkets to end their complicity in this abuse and address the issue head-on, using this report as their guide.”

What problems do workers in southern Spain face?

For 20 years, migrant agricultural workers in the Almeria and Huelva regions of southern Spain have faced flagrant abuses of their basic rights. They have been refused legal wages, fired for joining unions, forced to work in unsafe conditions, shouted at for taking toilet breaks and sexually assaulted and harassed.

The Produce of Exploitation report shows the following abuses are common in the regions of Huelva and Almeria:

  • forced labour
  • union busting
  • unsafe working conditions
  • payment of less than minimum wage
  • excessive working hours
  • failure to provide regular employment
  • discrimination, including sexual harassment
  • harsh and inhumane treatment

One worker called Hosein* told Ethical Consumer in 2019 that he was forced to clean channels on the roof of the greenhouse without any protections. “It’s like being in a circus. I have nothing to protect me, no helmet, no safety harness, no special shoes,” he said.

One worker, Maria*, told Ethical Consumer in 2021, “Lots of people want to speak out, but they are afraid.” It's common for workers who speak out or try to organise for their rights to be unfairly fired.

Crates and cardboard structures used by workers as living spaces
Migrant workers have lived in inadequate makeshift housing since the early 2000s. Lepe settlement, Almeria. Image credit: The Collective of African Workers.

Are UK supermarkets sourcing from exploitative farms?

The UK imports more fresh produce from Spain than from any other country, and most of this ends up on supermarket shelves. Much of this comes from key exporting regions Almeria and Huelva, where workers’ rights abuses are widespread.

From December to February one in every six tomatoes eaten in the UK is likely to be from Almeria. Over 60% of strawberries in the UK are likely to come from Huelva in between January and March.

It is highly likely that all major UK supermarkets source from Almeria and Huelva. Most supermarkets have been directly linked to at least one allegation outlined in the report.

What do UK supermarkets need to do?

As supermarkets spend millions on produce from the region they have power to create change.

Improve their supply chain policies

There are a number of immediate steps supermarkets should take to improve the effectiveness of their supply chain policies. For example:

  • ensuring supply chain policies cover all workers, down to those growing produce on farms
  • publishing the names and addresses of farms providing produce on their shelves

Several other supply chain policy recommendations are listed in the report.

Support worker-led solutions

The key recommendation of this report is that UK supermarkets commit to supporting Worker-Driven Social Responsibility (WSR) mechanisms as they begin to develop in Spain.

Under this type of model, workers define the conditions they want to be met and retailers such as supermarkets make legally binding commitments to only buy produce from suppliers that uphold these conditions.

Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the organisation that championed the model, explains:

“It’s simple: retail food giants commit to purchase from farms that respect workers’ rights and to cut-off purchases from those who violate their rights, with a dedicated monitoring body that listens to workers’ voices, protected against retaliation, monitoring and enforcing compliance. 

It’s time for the major retail food chains in the UK to be done with failed, voluntary social audits and to step up to the gold standard for human rights in the agricultural industry today. It’s time for UK supermarket giants to support worker-driven initiatives for change.”

WSR models have already seen enormous success around the world (an example is in our ethical guide to jeans).


Take action

  1. Follow developments and find out how you can support workers in Spain by signing up for the Spain campaign newsletter - fill in the form below.
  2. Contact supermarkets to express your concern for workers in their Spanish supply chains, and ask them to implement the report's recommendations. To contact a specific supermarket go to their company profile page and use our pre-made tweets and email links. Links to their profiles are below:
  3. Find out more about the campaign to support agricultural workers in UK supermarket supply chains.

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Responses to the report from supermarkets and organisations

Responses from supermarkets, organisations, and certifications to the criticisms outlined can be found in full at the end of the report.

*Named have been changed to protect worker identities.