Workers growing vegetables for UK supermarkets laid-off and threatened with eviction

Workers for a company supplying vegetables to the UK have been laid-off without warning and face eviction from their homes, after their employer decided to close some of its greenhouses in Almeria, Spain.

Employees of Campoverde in the Southern region of Spain say that they have been refused their last month's wages, as well as statutory severance pay.

Almeria has become notorious for the exploitation of migrant workers in its fruit and vegetable industry since the issues were first exposed in 2011. Companies in the region, which provide almost €300 million worth of produce to the UK every year, have faced repeated allegations of illegally low pay, uninhabitable living conditions and unsafe use of agricultural chemicals.

In November 2019, 40 employees for the company Campoverde arrived at work to find the gates to the greenhouses locked and their employment terminated, they say.

Many of these employees had been involved in a struggle for better contracts and pay and had threatened to strike in 2018. Since their dismissal, they have been refused statutory severance pay and their final month’s wages by the company, according to the workers.

Until November, they had been growing salad vegetables in the polytunnels.

The workers claim that the company is now trying to evict them from their housing, where some live with their families. Campoverde, like many companies in the area, arrange accommodation for the workers, but the local union, SOC-SAT, says that this leaves the employees vulnerable to eviction if employment is suddenly ended.

Often, they say, the housing that companies provide is almost uninhabitable, frequently without running water, and other basic requirements.

Workers in the area are largely unprotected by local authorities due to their migrant status with 30% of the workforce undocumented.

Campoverde did not reply to a request for comment.

SOC-SAT have also targetted Coprohnijar, a co-operative that they say is one company marketing Campoverde products, and which also shares some of the same producer-members.

We have strong reason to believe that the majority of the ten biggest UK supermarkets will have either or both of these companies in their supply chains.

The supermarkets all declined to comment, except Co-op, which referred us to a statement from the BRC.

British Retail Consortium stated:

“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, including Almeira, to improve the safety and wellbeing of those working in our supply chains.”

Coprohnijar told us:

“This is an employment conflict between Campoverde and the workers, which Coprohnijar has nothing to do with. [The company] SAT Campoverde caused a stoppage at our cooperative as a result of (according to them) these problems.

During the time that they [Campoverde] have been our partners, they have complied with the law, as demonstrated by the numerous audits that have been conducted, and to the different labour inspections carried out by the government of Spain.

...The claims and protests that are taking place at the entrance of the facilities do not represent the reality of the relationship between the Coprohnijar workers and the company.”

Campoverde’s closure of its greenhouses left more than four hectares of cherry tomatoes to go unpicked. SOC-SAT says that one of the greenhouses has now been replanted with vegetables but the workers are still unemployed and without compensation.

SOC-SAT says that it is not just Campoverde itself that is at fault. It says that supermarkets are also complicit, through failing to expose and address the problems.

We believe that the supermarkets should take responsibility and ask that Campoverde reach a fair settlement with the workers. We also believe that Coprohnijar are well placed to ensure fair treatment for Campoverde workers and believe that the supermarkets should work with them to demand this.

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