Supermarkets and certifications failing to protect Spanish workers

The serious exploitation of migrant workers in the Southern Spanish region of Almeria has been known about since 2011. So why are UK supermarkets and agricultural certifiers still failing to address issues in the region?

Every year, the poly-tunnels of Almeria in Southern Spain provide €283 million worth of produce to the UK, much of which goes to the largest supermarkets.

Serious workers rights issues in Almeria have been known about since 2011, and we have been reporting on them since 2018: there have been repeated reports of shanty towns, illegally low pay, and even the deaths of several local workers from exposure to dangerous chemicals.

All the major supermarkets claim that they are making efforts to address this, and have policies to protect those in their supply chains, which include the right for workers to join trade unions.

However, over recent months, SOC-SAT, the local agricultural union, has reported serious ongoing issues: from retaliations against union members to the refusal of wages and the attempted eviction of laid-off workers.

Good policies, poor practices

Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose all sponsor Ethical Trade Forums in Spain. The aim of the forums, which include meetings held in Almeria every year, is to "improve understanding of human rights abuses and to raise standards".

But since the initiative was launched in 2012, just eight union members have attended the forums – far outweighed by the over 500 producing, packaging and exporting companies and the 57 importers and supermarkets that have participated.

Asda, Lidl, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose also explain that they work with Global GAP- an international standard for ‘good agricultural practice’ that often involves auditing by independent third parties- as well as other initiatives.

Both Lidl and Sainsbury’s mention use of Global GAP’s GRASP social risk assessment, which is a voluntary audit “addressing specific aspects of workers’ health, safety and welfare”, including “the payment of wages according to legal requirements”, according to the initiative.

But José, from Spanish trade union SOC-SAT, describes the use of Global GAP’s GRASP risk assessment as “whitewashing the exploitation in Almeria”. He says that companies provide auditors with “false information showing the payment of national insurance for workers and, in this way, avoid paying the minimum wage".

Several companies also cite involvement with the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), of which Aldi, Asda, Co-op, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose are all listed as members.

In 2015, when Channel 4 reported on abuses of salad pickers in the region, the ETI responded that its members were taking urgent action. But still abuses re-emerge.

Case study: Suppressing union members

Following an article published by Ethical Consumer earlier this year, we reported that a UK supermarket had intervened during a strike at an Almerian producer, putting pressure on the company to address its employees’ complaints.

As a result of that intervention, a settlement between the company and the workers was reached. The company agreed to pay the minimum wage, allow lunch breaks and provide permanent contracts for fifteen of the seasonal workers.

But in September, workers at the company went on strike for a second time. During the months since the initial strike, they said that the company had repeatedly broken the terms of the agreement and they had faced “systematic humiliation and coercion as reprisals”. The agreed wages were not paid, and dangerous conditions continued to be imposed, they claim.

“This man has collapsed 3 times,” one worker, Mohammed, says about his companion. “They have obliged him to spray [agricultural chemicals on the crops], or get out. If he refuses, they will sanction him.”

Some appeared to have been targetted for their involvement in January, the workers say. Hosein was left with scars on his wrists and hands from his work during the intervening months. He was told to start cleaning the channels on the roof of the greenhouse, he claims, where his hands were cut and scratched by wires.

 “It’s like being in a circus. I have nothing to protect me, no helmet, no safety harness, no special shoes.”

He complained, but the company gave him a sanction. After three, they can sack him. Hosein has worked there for 11 years.

Eventually, Mohammed says, some workers were sacked for their involvement. “The bosses have decided that we were the leaders in the last strike,” Mohammed says. “Immigrants who don’t have papers have been recruited to work in our place.”

The September strike was eventually resolved, and a new agreement made. But the company’s actions show that supermarket responses are not working. Supermarkets may intervene when problems are tracked to them, and such interventions are welcomed. But they will not address the underlying issues in their supply chains.

Where will change come from?

Often, supermarkets only monitor their direct suppliers – the trading companies that sit between the farms themselves and the supermarkets.  This way they can fail to ensure good conditions for those actually working in the greenhouses.

If supermarkets were more transparent about where their produce came from, they would create a feedback mechanism that would make it easier for problems to be identified and corrected. An ethical company should, after all, be proud of its suppliers.

Co-op is among those leading the way, committing to sharing its sourcing sites and their human rights risks by 2020. M&S and Waitrose have also made important initial steps, publishing full lists of their direct “tier one” suppliers. But others must follow suit.

The supermarkets and the forums they belong to should also do more to actively engage with the unions and social organisations working in the area. This will help them to respond to abuses as and when they arise, rather than at the point at which they hit the news.

Responses from ethical trade initiatives

We recognize that there are always improvements to be made, but we also recognize that best practices do exist. Our experience over the last few years, is that this type of collaborative initiative is having an impact and slowly changing perceptions, mindsets and workers’ conditions.

Southern Spain is a major source of salad and fruit supply not only to UK supermarkets but for much of Europe, and the well-documented labour rights abuses within the farming sector there warrant serious attention.

The Spanish Ethical Trade Forum has made significant progress in responding to concerns, opening up the industry to its international responsibilities and steering practices, and is to be commended for this. But it needs to do much more if the sector is to be sustainable, and reports of exploited workers are to become a thing of the past.

Spanish suppliers have been poorly organised and poorly supported overall and this needs to change.

Employment practices are still inadequate on some farms given the nature of the workforce, which comprises largely of migrant workers from North Africa, and business models overall need to better reflect the demands of international markets and labour standards.

Companies working to mitigate risks of poor employment practices in the region, including ETI members, should be transparent and open to scrutiny and challenge from others who may have information and the potential to collaborate on possible solutions.

ETI will continue to expect, and support when asked to, our members to report on and share their activities and progress. We also encourage members to put pressure on SETF to do the same in relation to the progress being made against its agreed action plans.

We need to build trust and transparency between all parties if we are to see progress.

Our core certification product – the Integrated Farm Assurance standard - is the result of years of intensive research and collaboration with industry experts, producers and retailers around the globe. The standard for agricultural production covers the following issues:

    • Food safety and traceability
    • Includes Integrated Crop Management (ICM), Integrated Pest Control (IPC),
    • Quality Management System (QMS), and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP)
    • Environment (including biodiversity)
    • Workers’ health, safety and welfare

The Integrated Farm Assurance standard demands, among other things, greater efficiency in production. It improves business performance and reduces waste of vital resources. It also requires a general approach to farming that builds in best practices for generations to come…

Farms can implement [the GRASP standard] as a voluntary audit in addition to the Integrated Farm Assurance certification. GRASP stands for GLOBAL G.A.P. Risk Assessment on Social Practice.

The standard does not result in a certificate, but an assessment report, which evaluates social practices on the farm, addressing specific aspects of workers’ health, safety and welfare. The payment of wages according to legal requirements is one of the GRASP control points.

In this respect GRASP is a voluntary module, which producers generally implement on the request of a customer, in order to provide more insight into potential social risks…. GLOBAL G.A.P. makes no claim about this matter and not all farms in Almeria choose to implement GRASP…

GLOBAL G.A.P. takes the issue of social risks in agricultural supply chains seriously.

Update on Spanish workers' conditions

In April 2020, BBC reported on a second strike at Godoy. Workers said that they continued to be underpaid. "He says: 'Do what you want, I won't pay.'" The footage shows the police exporting illegal workers off the site, who had been brought in to break the strike.