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Shortages show UK reliance on Spanish and Moroccan fruit and veg pickers

The decision by some UK supermarkets to ration fresh produce has gained a lot of attention. But discussion about the rights of workers who pick this produce, in Spain and Morocco, is long overdue. 

UK supermarkets are currently experiencing shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables, from tomatoes to cucumbers.

Both supermarkets and the government say that this is due to bad weather affecting suppliers in key exporter regions such as Spain and Morocco.

This has momentarily brought into the spotlight how much UK supermarkets depend on these regions in order to stock their shelves with out-of-season produce all year round.

But the question of the migrant workers who prop up Spain’s agricultural sector remains unanswered.

Tens of thousands of migrant workers pick fruit and vegetables in southern Spain each year, and have been reporting prolific and widespread workers rights abuses for 20 years.

What is the real cost of out-of-season produce, and what can UK consumers do about it?

What’s behind the shortages?

Since mid-February 2023 supermarkets including Aldi, Asda, Lidl, Morrisons and Tesco have been rationing certain fruit and vegetables. Different supermarkets are rationing different types of fresh produce, from cucumbers to tomatoes.

The UK government blames “poor weather in Spain and North Africa which has impacted production for imported vegetables which are currently out of season in the UK.”

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) says that suppliers have told them that the reason for shortages is “predominantly caused by poor weather in Spain and North Africa where they are produced.”

However, some commentators and suppliers are pointing the finger at Brexit, and highlighting how other European countries who receive exports from the regions aren’t experiencing shortages.

The Spanish Federation of Fruit, Vegetables, Flowers and Plants (FEPEX) says “There are no problems with exports to other EU countries”.

Other factors connected to Brexit that could contribute to the shortages include the drop in seasonal migrant workers in the UK’s agricultural sector post-Brexit, increased sourcing of Moroccan over Spanish produce, and even exporters simply choosing not to work with the UK anymore.

Shortages highlight UK’s dependence on migrant labour

However much bad weather and Brexit are to blame, these shortages have made it clear that UK supermarket shelves are reliant upon workers in southern Spain and Morocco.

Greenhouses cover swathes of land across Spain’s southern coast, where produce such as tomatoes, berries, and peppers are grown in their millions and exported to the UK and European countries.

The UK imports more fruit and vegetables from Spain than from any other country, and most of this ends up on supermarket shelves.

Almeria and Huelva, key Spanish exporting regions, are dependent on migrant labour. The workers labouring in these greenhouses are from all over the world.

Most workers in Almeria are migrants, with around 30% of these undocumented. There are estimated to be around 100,000 migrant workers in Almeria harvesting fruit and vegetables, often on seasonal and short-term contracts.

Over 12,000 people are recruited directly from Morocco to Huelva each year to work in the harvests, and women with children are the primary target demographic because they’re most likely to return to Morocco after their contract ends.

Landscape view of Almeria covered by greenhouses
Image: Almeria landscape a sea of greenhouses. Credit George Ruiz and Rayne Laborde Ruiz

Appalling working conditions

The situation for agricultural workers in southern Spain is one of major exploitation.

Workers say they have been refused legal wages, shouted at for taking toilet breaks, fired for being ill, sexually harassed and denied the rights to unionise.

Forced labour in Huelva’s strawberry sector has been described as “routine” by a UN representative, and reports of sexual assault and harassment are widespread.

Some work from sunrise to sunset with just a 30 minute break, and aren’t paid any extra for overtime. Many have been sacked for trying to unionise.

Extensive evidence shows that living wages are not paid in either Almeria or Huelva. In fact, many workers report that they are paid far below minimum wage, particularly those who are undocumented.

Workers have been speaking out about these issues for over 20 years, but inadequate action has been taken by either governments or supermarkets to improve conditions for the workers whose labour stocks our shelves.

Take action

Ethical Consumer is calling on UK supermarkets to take action to address workers’ rights abuses in their southern Spain supply chains.

We’re about to launch a specific newsletter so you can follow developments on the situation for workers in southern Spain, and our efforts to hold UK supermarkets to account. You’ll get an email with updates every two months.

Just email us on with your email address if you’d like to be added to the newsletter when it launches near the end of March. You can also use the contact us page and select 'general enquiry' and fill in your details and message.