Workers fired for talking about coronavirus on Spanish farms

Conditions for farm workers in southern Spain have become yet more dire as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through the area.

We spoke with workers and union representatives in August to hear how businesses have dealt with potential virus outbreaks and safety measures in the region.

Crowded workplaces, a lack of hygiene and an air of secrecy, with some workers threatened with the sack for talking about the virus, are just some of the issues that farm workers in Covid hit Spain have told us about over the last few months.

We spoke to one female employee that used to work at Cuna de Platero, a Huelva-based company that supplies strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries to several European countries.

“Before the pandemic everything was perfect for me - they treated me very well and I was regarded highly, being promoted each year, thanks to the work I was putting in. But falling unwell was the worst thing that could have happened to me.”

“I had virus symptoms and was unwell for 27 days, and stayed in quarantine at home. When I returned to work HR asked me to please not tell anyone I was unwell with coronavirus symptoms. They said if I told my colleagues they wouldn’t look at me the same. They told me to say I had been ill with depression, and not tell the truth. I went back to work and an hour and a half later they called me back to the office and fired me. I didn’t expect it at all.”

“There was another worker that a similar thing happened to as well - and management didn’t warn a single worker that there had been cases of contagion.”

Working conditions during the pandemic

As well as firing employees for speaking out questions have also been raised about conditions on the farms during the pandemic.

“When everything began, they didn’t give us gloves or masks and we were working less than one metre apart from each other. It was only when the Civil Guard came that they started putting measures in place, like masks and gloves.”

The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, has always lived in Huelva and worked at Cuna de Platero for three years.

Cuna de Platero said in a statement: "We would like to state that since the beginning of the health crisis caused by COVID-19, our cooperative has put in place all the necessary protocols and preventative measures recommended by the health authorities [...] In spite of the difficulties, our team has worked in a responsible way.”

Scroll down to see the company’s full response.

No social distamcing in workers queue
“Social distancing means nothing here.” Workers are crowded together as they enter the Surexport warehouse each day.

We spoke to a second anonymous worker, originally from Seville, who has worked at the Huelva-based company Surexport for two years. Surexport is a berry company that features the Tesco logo on its website and is said to be one of the supermarket’s main berry suppliers.

“The first year I worked at Surexport for a few months and it was a very good experience, so I decided to come back and work here again. This year has been a completely different experience. It’s been so bad.”

The worker said that one time during the height of the pandemic she was feeling unwell and dizzy. She fell over and asked the person in charge if she could go outside. She was dismayed at their response. “They yelled at me. I don’t like the way they have treated us.”

She continued, “There have been various colleagues who have caught coronavirus. By this I mean they had symptoms, or were in quarantine. The business never told workers this. Workers shared the information but those in charge threatened to fire them if they spoke about the issue.”

Surexport commented: “We do not condone any supervisor or person in authority at Surexport yelling at any worker, this behaviour is not acceptable to us, and we have a number of procedures in place that workers can anonymously report any harsh or unfair treatment. Before this complaint, nothing has been reported to us of that nature from any of our farms”. The company also sent Ethical Consumer a range of documentation related to Covid-19 procedures.

Scroll down to read more of the company’s response.

The interpretations of the company management and the anonymous worker appear to be conflicting. There is also the possibility that this was a one-off instance of one supervisor not following Surexport’s policies.

Defending the rights of workers

Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha and Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (SAT) are two organisations working in Huelva to challenge the workers’ rights abuses.
Ana Pinto used to work on the farms, and is now part of workers’ rights collective Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha. As she is vocal about workers’ rights abuses in the sector, no companies will hire her. “Since I began publicly denouncing what’s happening, all doors closed to me.”

Pinto recently began working with a cooperative of lawyers that asked her to be a mediator in a project that offers free legal advice to workers in the sector.

Pinto stated “We’ve been contacted by workers from three of the largest red fruits companies in Huelva, frightened because businesses prohibit them talking about coronavirus. They believed colleagues were getting infected and the business was hiding it.”

One worker, who did not wish to state their workplace, told Pinto that managers are threatening to fine workers hundreds of euros if they speak about coronavirus - such as discussing medical records that show they have possible virus symptoms. This means employees that have symptoms and self-isolate could be fined if they try to warn other colleagues with thom they have been working in close contact that they may be at risk.

We’ve been contacted by workers from three of the largest red fruits companies in Huelva, frightened because the businesses prohibited them from talking about coronavirus.

Jose Antonio Brazo is part of the union Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (SAT) in Huelva. While business owners appear to be denying the possibility that there have been outbreaks among workers, many of whom live in shantytowns, Brazo is sceptical that this is the reality.

Workers have been vocal about the lack of PPE and social distancing since the start of the pandemic.

Brazo said, “Since the pandemic began, there has been a widespread lack of basic PPE, water, sanitizer, masks, gloves, and social distancing. One manager even said many businesses would prefer to pay the penalty if they have an inspection, rather than spend one or two days buying PPE, masks and gloves for workers.”

“If there have been cases of coronavirus, they have been censored and not come to light. It’s a ‘miracle’ that in not a single shantytown, lacking water, basic essential services, and rubbish collection, there hasn’t been a single case of coronavirus.”

Ethical Consumer has been writing about the working and living conditions for agricultural workers in southern Spain since the beginning of 2019. Many companies in the region, which major UK supermarkets source fresh produce from, are accused of violating workers’ rights.

British supermarkets have not acknowledged responsibility for the actions of these companies, despite these workers likely being a part of UK supermarket supply chains.

Although all the major UK supermarkets claim to have adequate policies in place, they are clearly failing to protect those in their supply chains in some instances.

Read our list of demands for UK supermarkets and contact them directly to ask them to make the changes.

Company responses

Surexport

“We do not condone any supervisor or person in authority at Surexport yelling at any worker, this behaviour is not acceptable to us, and we have a number of procedures in place that workers can anonymously report any harsh or unfair treatment. Before this complaint, nothing has been reported to us of that nature from any of our farms”

“The human resources department has added the figures of the covid cases on each site, plus the quarantine situation in the height of the pandemic. Huelva at that time was not testing, just isolating if symptoms were present”

“Again, we do not condone any supervisor or person in authority at Surexport threatening the workers, it is unacceptable”

“In addition to the above, I would like to emphasise that during our initial lockdown, we helped the local government with supplies and supported our workers instead of making redundancies. We have strong roots with the local community and high level of seasonal returnees.”

Surexport also enclosed a series of documentation related to Covid-19 procedures and management.

A further response from Surexport was received on 19 October. “We want to say that in Surexport we take serious precautions against COVID-19. We are regularly inspected by customers and by the public institutions and all of them confirm that Surexport is correctly handling this global pandemic. Last week, we received the visit from DPS, which has confirmed our correct response to COVID-19, including the respect of social distancing rules in our company. We also have protocols to make sure that supervisors act correctly.”

 Cuna de Platero

“We would like to state that since the beginning of the health crisis caused by COVID-19, our cooperative has put in place all the necessary protocols and preventative measures recommended by the health authorities, to guarantee the security and health of all of the people working here. We are a primary sector cooperative, that grows and sells essential produce, and therefore have continued working with all of the preventative measures in place to ensure the provision of fruit to the population.

“The situation for us is complicated, as it is for the whole population and all social and economic sectors. We would like to highlight and thank all the people who make up our cooperative. In spite of the difficulties, our team has worked in a responsible way. We have utilised all the tools available to us to support those around us during the pandemic. The cooperative’s farmers, since the beginning, offered all the means available to them to help disinfect streets in the municipality. We donated fruit to social organisations, which was distributed to hospitals and people who most needed it. In the hardest moments of the health crisis we have donated PPI and protection materials to nearby medical centres.”