UN condemns “inhuman” conditions for strawberry pickers in Huelva

The United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty has condemned conditions for immigrant workers in Huelva, Southern Spain, as the start of the 2020 berry picking season begins. 

The UN independent researcher stated that he was left “stunned” after seeing conditions for hundreds of workers in the region, which supplies soft fruits to major UK supermarkets. He stated that conditions in the migrant settlements “rival the worst I have seen anywhere in the world.”  

An ‘Inadmissible’ situation

Ethical Consumer first reported on conditions in Huelva in 2019. The soft fruits industry, which exports its produce to countries across Europe - including to many UK retailers - is central to the region’s economy and generated €500 million in 2018-19. 

Thousands of workers have again been recruited from Morocco to prop up the industry during the picking season. Often employed on temporary ‘contracts in origin’, the workers are promised the legal wage, medical treatment and free accommodation in return for moving to Spain for the season - but these conditions often go unmet.

Following his 12 day visit to Spain in January, the special rapporteur Phillip Alston reported that workers were living in shacks or “tents made of plastic that is used to cover strawberries”, had no electricity or running water, and only public squat toilets.

He condemned the companies and authorities profiting from the situation, quoting a worker in the region:

“When there’s work, Spain needs migrants, but no one is interested in our living conditions.”

Many earn just €30 a day, according to his report. In an interview with Spanish press Alston stated,

"Companies and the municipality are benefiting greatly, it is a huge industry. So I think it is really inadmissible that nothing [is being] done to improve the situation." 

He called on local companies and the Spanish authorities to provide “the minimum human basic” and stated that he would be asking Driscoll’s - the largest soft fruits producer in the region - what it is doing to monitor and improve the situation. Driscoll’s berries are sold in Whole Food Markets in the UK.

Driscoll’s was also found to be in Lidl’s supply chain in October 2016, after Driscoll’s workers in Mexico accused the company of employment conditions amounting to “neo-slavery”.

Huelva in COVID-19

Workers and organisations in the area say that the settlements now face a major crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. Residents have been confined to their housing, without access to running water and sanitation, leading one worker to file a lawsuit against the Spanish government for violation of basic human rights.

Deceptive contracts?

The UN visit coincides with new figures that appear to expose widespread irregularities in the recruitment of Moroccan workers for the industry.

Contract numbers filed with the Spanish authorities show that of the almost 15,000 workers recruited for the temporary employment in the country in 2019, only 0.1% received contracts that met their legal rights.

Those recruited from Morocco should receive, according to Spanish law, three-month contracts guaranteeing a salary that amounts to €42.02 for each day in Spain; a six and a half hour working day; overtime pay; one day off each week and decent and safe housing.

In 2019, only 243 contracts of this nature were filed for almost 15,000 workers. Instead, companies have offered ‘work and service’ contracts that exempt them from providing the workers - many of whom are illiterate - with a salary or guaranteed employment. This type of contract is designed for casual Spanish workers, and its use with those ‘contracted in origin’ - recruited from Morocco - is illegal.

These figures imply that the recruitment companies, which receive almost half a million euros in subsidies from the Spanish authorities each year, have been allowed to commit fraud on a massive scale, at the cost of those working in the soft fruits industry.

Enabling abuse

The reports echo repeated complaints from unions and the workers in the industry. Over recent years, there have been repeated reports of sexual harassment, as well as other abuse.

In 2018, a farm owned by Doñaña 1998 attempted to send one hundred workers back to Morocco after they reported sexual abuses to the authorities. Reports of sexual assault were also made by workers for Freserrano. Doñaña 1998 lists Tesco Nature as one of its ‘quality certifications’, on its website.  In June 2018, Aldi told BuzzFeed that it would not be obtaining produce from Doñaña 1998 and Fresserrano - which had previously been in its supply chains - until the situation had been ‘clarified’.

Unions believe that single women with children are often selected for employment during recruitment in Morocco, seen to be in greater need of money and therefore easier to exploit.

In 2019, three workers from Las Posedillas farm, owned by strawberry production company Los Arenales de Mazagón, contacted the police with reports that their salaries had gone unpaid, they had faced overcrowded accommodation, and extremely long working hours, as well as sexual harassment and “coercion to practice prostitution”.

Also in 2019, workers for Agrícolas El Bosque, which trades under the name La Canastita, were fired after they promoted union elections. The company produces blackberries. Carmen, one of the dismissed workers, said:

“There was a moment when I realised that this cannot be, that it cannot continue like this.”

La Canastita is said to be a berry supplier for UK supermarket chains including Tesco, Asda and Marks & Spencer. Aldi has also previously bought berries from Landgard España en Huelva - a supplier of produce from both La Canastita and Los Posedillas.

Peter Andrews, Head of Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said,

“Any practices which fall short of UK retailer’s high standards are always quickly investigated, and any legal breaches should be immediately brought to the attention of law enforcement. Many UK retailers have funded and supported the Spain Ethical Trade Supplier Forums - a coalition of retailers and importers who support growers in Southern Spain to improve the safety and wellbeing of those working in our supply chains.”

Asda, Aldi, Sainsbury’s and Coop said that the BRC’s comment represented their position. Whole Foods Market directed us to their supplier for comment.

Change needed

These cases show just a few of the abuses that the local agricultural union says are occurring throughout the region.

Although links to specific supermarkets have been found, these companies and others from the region are in the supply chains of many UK supermarkets. 97% of Spain’s berry production takes place in Huelva, and the region is the main European producer. It means that whenever a box of berries is marked ‘Spain’ in a supermarket it is likely to have come from Huelva, and risks being associated with the conditions that the UN, as well as many workers, have described.

The reports raise the question: why are supermarkets allowing contractual irregularities and workers’ rights abuses to continue in their supply chains?

As the soft fruit picking season begins again for 2020, Ethical Consumer is calling on UK supermarkets to address the serious abuses and contractual irregularities in their supply chains. We urge readers to contact supermarkets and just ask, 'what are you doing in response to these reports'?

Coronavirus update

Workers in Almeria and Huelva, southern Spain have been confined to the cramped settlements where they live, by recent social distancing laws. Many are without access to running water, basic sanitation, food and other vital supplies. Ethical Consumer is working with local organisations to support them. Support the Crowdfunder now - www.crowdfunder.co.uk/supportworkers

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