The announcement begs the question why the supermarkets themselves are not doing more to address abuses in their supply chains.
The joint investigation, published in September, found that migrant workers on vegetable farms in Almeria supplying UK supermarkets had been left unprotected in the face of a new wave of COVID-19 infections in the region.“We pick your food,” one worker, Hassan, said during interviews for the piece, “but our health doesn’t matter to anyone.”
The British Retail Consortium, which represents Sainsbury’s, Asda, Lidl and Aldi, amongst others, released a statement in September following the investigation: “We call on the Spanish Government to launch an investigation into labour conditions in the Almería region to help our members stamp out any exploitative practices.”
Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, echoed calls for the Spanish Government to act, but also said that supermarkets must do more.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the unacceptable conditions facing migrant workers and the Spanish Government must urgently act, but two-thirds of all fruit and vegetables consumed across Europe and the UK come from these greenhouses and all the companies and retailers up these supply chains have a responsibility to these workers as well.”
“People want to protect themselves”
The Observer interviewed more than 45 workers employed on farms in Almeria. A joint supply chain investigation by Ethical Consumer linked many of them to the supply chains of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Lidl, and Aldi, amongst other UK supermarkets.
At the time of the investigation, the region was seeing more than 100 new cases of COVID-19 a day. Yet many of the workers stated that they were not being provided with protection.“Gloves and face masks in the greenhouse? Temperature checks? They don’t give you anything,” Hassan said.
Another worker employed by a company supplying the UK said that he had only been given two face masks in six months.
Another, Muhammed, said that he was fired after testing positive for COVID-19.
“When I contracted COVID-19, I’d already spent two years working for this company without papers and two years on a temporary contract, but when I came back they said there is nothing for me here,” he says. He says he and others who did not get their jobs back also did not receive the sick pay they were entitled to as essential workers.
Medical charities have been distributing masks and gloves and providing temperature checks in the shanty towns where many of the workers live, alongside SOC-SAT the local agricultural union. The local government claims that the virus has not reached the towns; yet multiple cases have been reported on farms in the region and in the dilapidated house blocks near the farms where other workers live.
“People want to protect themselves, but they cannot”, says Almudena Puertas from the NGO Cáritas. “They are here because there is work and we need them.”
Ongoing labour abuses
All 45 of the workers interviewed claimed that they had been subjected to systemic labour exploitation throughout the pandemic, including being refused payment of wages and being employed on illegal temporary contracts. “It’s like they have forgotten we are also human beings,” says Ali, who has lived in Spain for more than 15 years.
The investigation adds to long-running reports of abuses in the region. Hassan says that he earns just €5 an hour. “The working conditions are terrible,” he says. “Sometimes we work from sunup to sundown in extreme heat, with only a 30-minute break in the whole day.”
“If, under normal conditions, health and safety regulations are not followed, you can imagine what’s happening in the current situation with a pandemic,” says José García Cuevas from SOC-SAT Union.
Many workers also said that they worked in a culture of fear and intimidation, where workers could be sacked for speaking out.
Read the full investigation now.