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Spain, salads and UK supermarkets: new documentary exposes conditions for workers

Ethical Consumer has collaborated on a new short documentary exposing the conditions faced by undocumented migrants in southern Spain, picking vegetables for UK supermarkets.

The documentary tells the story of Manneh, who left The Gambia in 2016 and works in Spain. 

Manneh is currently an undocumented worker. Many undocummented workers like Manneh prop up the salad vegetable industry in Almeria. In fact they are said to make up around 30% of the workforce

But Mannah says that receiving residency in Spain is almost impossible. The authorities would require proof of residence through rental agreements as well as written evidence that he has been in the country for three years. But Manneh and many other undocumented workers live in shanty towns, in shacks made of plastic, pallets and cardboard - meaning that they cannot provide this kind of paperwork. 

The authorities would also require Manneh to show that he has a permanent contract with a farm in the region. But many employers will not provide this: some workers remain without a permanent contract for over a decade.

Instead, Manneh is forced to look for work by the side of the road each morning. He waits to be picked up by farm owners, who decide day-to-day who will be offered employment. 

Mannah says that he does not understand why people who work in Spain cannot be given documentation and regular employment. “So many people working on the farms are good,” Mannah says. “They have lived here more than seven years, and they are here still suffering: no job, no work, no papers.”

Undocumented workers face serious exploitation

Workers who are undocumented face serious exploitation, and they say that they are often unable to speak out. Many are concerned about retaliation from those employing them: workers in the area report being fired, sanctioned or given dangerous work for speaking up or joining unions. Undocumented workers also face concerns about deportation if they reach out to the state. 

Workers say that even the process of gaining documentation is subject to exploitation. As we say above, in order to gain settled status, those who have been in Spain for three years must show a one year contract to the authorities. Yet, a union representing workers in the region says that people like Manneh are often forced to pay for these contracts - giving €3,000-6,000 or half their month’s wages back to their employers in return for the necessary paperwork. 

UK supermarkets have failed to act

Many abuses in the Almeria region have been linked to major UK supermarkets. Yet, the retailers have failed to act. 

As we told documentary makers John Moore and Stuart Hall, “Supermarkets do a really good job of obscuring their supply chains. It means that even where consumers have an image of what rights are like in southern Spain, they don’t necessarily connect it to the courgette they’re eating or the tomato they’re eating.”

The future

Mannah hopes that one day he’ll be able to return to The Gambia.

“One day in the future I’ll go back to my family," Mannah says. “I’ll sit with my happy family. Everyone wishes for their happiness, not that you will wake up everyday stressed.” 

Our campaign

Ethical Consumer was approached by documentary makers John Moore and Stuart Hall to speak on the situation faced by Mannah and thousands of others in the region.

We have been campaigning on abuses in southern Spain for three years, exposing cases of underpayment of wages, dangerous working conditions and verbal and physical abuse in farms that are part of UK supermarket supply chains.