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Workers fired from UK supermarket supplier Bio Looije fight back in court

Delia McGrath from SOC-SAT Union in Spain explains more about the problems faced by workers in southern Spain, growing food destined for most UK supermarkets.

Further research by Clare Carlile and Jasmine Owens.

On 12th December 2020 over 80 workers were dismissed from their jobs at a farm in southern Spain by a company owned by the UK supermarket supplier Bio Looije. The union SOC-SAT says that workers who joined the company after 2012 were offered just two thirds of what they are entitled to by law.

Several workers have now taken the company to court to demand fair compensation. 

A court ruling from one of the workers dated 12 March 2021 states that the worker looks set to receive significant compensation from the company - and is entitled to over twice the severance pay the company initially offered. 

The ruling is the first of several to come and states that Bio Looije should pay an additional €9000 of redundancy pay on top of the €6,400 that had originally been paid.

We spoke to Mamadou*, who worked at the company for 22 years and argues that he should have received around €20,000 according to Spanish law, was offered less that €7,000.

Vine tomatoes in red crates with Luis Andujar name
Tomatoes in crates with Luis Andujar name

Workers' rights ignored

In February last year, a migrant woman who works packing salad vegetables into punnets for the Almerian vegetable company Luis Andujar, made a clandestine recording of her boss haranguing female employees about visits to the bathroom.

In the recording a manager told the workers that they were allowed just 6 minutes per eight hour shift, 3 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon to use toilet facilities. They had to clock in and out to prove they stayed within the time limits, and if it was exceeded, they would be out of a job, and she would “see them in court”.

The recording was aired on the Andalusian and national TV channels. The contempt with which many employers in the region treat the workers had momentarily reached the public at large.

According to one of the dismissed workers, Omar*, some workers began to ask the boss for better working conditions. But if you asked bosses to improve, they’d do the opposite. Many workers were too afraid to ask for better conditions.”

He says workers were asking for “our legal rights, such as breaks, the transport bonus, and minimum wage. Many of us were receiving much less than the legal wage - including me”.

He states that Luis Andujar responded by putting workers who were involved in the struggle for better working rights into one greenhouse. 

“Workers who had spoken to the boss asking for better working conditions were moved from their workplaces to the same location, so they could better control them. They did this to make sure other workers didn’t start complaining too. Moving them to a separate location was also like a way to scold them for asking for improvements.”

In 2019 the company conceded some additional rights to these workers as a result of their efforts to improve conditions.

Spotlight on the company: Luis Andujar, owned by Bio Looije

In 2020 Luis Andujar was bought by Bio Looije. Bio Looije is owned by the Looije group which is headquartered in Murcia. 

In December 2020 Bio Looije announced that it would fire the entire Luis Andujar workforce – over 80 employees.

Vine tomatoes in poor condition in commercial greenhouse
One worker said "They stopped putting the heating on, which results in bad quality produce."

Workers claim the company made things looks bad so it could fire them

Omar*, one of the dismissed workers, told us:

“Bio Looije started paying us very late, and hiring more people to raise costs. They uprooted us workers and moved us to another farm. They stopped putting the heating on, which results in bad quality produce, and starting collecting tomatoes just to throw them in the bin. It looked like they were trying to make the financial position of the company look bad.

“We decided we had to go to the union. To tell them everything, and ask for our rights. We pointed out for example that they weren’t paying us our transportation bonus.

“The company organised a ‘Labour Force Adjustment Plan’ vote, offering to make us redundant with only a small amount of compensation. The majority of workers accepted this, but some of us refused.

“30 people, 11 of us who worked in the fields and 19 women from the warehouse, did not accept and stated instead that we were ‘non-conforming’.

“We have filed a lawsuit against the company to see what the courts say. We’ve taken all of this evidence of unfair lay-offs to court. Right now as of March 2021 we are waiting for the response of the courts.

“The farms where we were working haven’t closed. Instead, other people are working there.

“We don’t know who these people are – they won’t tell us. We don’t even know if they have an office. But in one of the farms we have seen people who used to have management roles with Bio Looije. We’ve also seen the same cars that used to belong to Bio Looije going in and out of the farms – they have the same number plates – except the name ‘Bio Looije’ has been removed from the side of the car.” 

They believe that the company has hired workers from temporary employment agencies to replace the fired workers. 

Jose Cuevas, organiser with SOC-SAT Union believes that Bio Looije used financial reasons as an excuse to lay-off a workforce that successfully campaigned for improved conditions. 

Workers protesting outside warehouse with banner
Workers from SAT union have been speaking out about conditions and working practices

An unjust food system

Such behaviour is common in the region: companies lay-off workers in order to undo the small gains won through years of struggle, eroding basic rights and returning to a cheaper and more exploitable workforce.

In November 2019, Ethical Consumer reported that employees for another farm owned by Campoverde had arrived at work to find the gates to the greenhouses locked and their employment terminated. Many of them had likewise been involved in a struggle for better contracts and pay, and they were similarly denied statutory severance pay as well as their last month’s wages. At other farms, workers are gradually laid off one-by-one if they speak out.

Workers believe a similar situation may be emerging at the company Eurosol. The Eurosol website states “We supply our products to the most important supermarket chains in Holland, Switzerland, the UK, France, Belgium and Germany."

In April Ethical Consumer was informed that union members employed by Eurosol had been moved from their respective worksites into a single worksite to isolate them from other workers. The workers say that temporary agency staff have been hired to replace them in their previous worksites. Several of these unionised workers have been issued with warnings for various reasons - once they reach three warnings they can be fired. Eurosol was contacted for comment but did not respond.

Little by little though the situation is changing. The two major trade unions, UGT and CCOO are at last beginning to denounce the conditions in the sector. Strikes are also becoming more frequent.

The campaign to clean up UK supermarket supply chains

The Looije group is thought to supply several UK supermarkets. 

We approached Marks and Spencer for comment as the M&S logo and an M&S audit certificate dated October 2019 was featured on the Looije group website. 

M&S responded “M&S has never sourced from Bio Looije and we do not source from the broader Looije group.” M&S was unable to provide assurance that the Looije group was not anywhere within the broader M&S supply chain.

The Tesco ‘Nurture’ logo is also featured on the Looije group website. Tesco declined to comment.

Migrant workers in the Almeria region of Spain have long been denied their rights by employers in the region. For more than 20 years, they have reported refusal to pay minimum wages, use of dangerous agrochemicals and denial of the right to unionise and other abuses.

These farms supply fruit and vegetables to supermarkets in the UK. All major UK supermarkets are believed to buy from the region.

* All names have been changed, to protect the identities of the workers.

Take action

Ethical Consumer is campaigning for supermarkets to improve conditions in their Almerian supply chains. Read more about our Almeria workers campaign on the campaign page.

The campaign page features responses from the main supermarkets in the UK about what they are doing about workers' rights.