Sea of plastic: Spain’s migrant workers exploited to fill Europe's fresh-produce shelves

In 2019, approximately 6 million migrants were reported as living in Spain, making it the sixth most popular European target for migrants. With this has come a massive inequality, unemployment, poverty and exploitation by local employers. Migrants who work on Spanish farms are refused a minimum wage, forced to labor in unsanitary conditions and are threatened with dismissal if they speak out

 

Almeria’s greenhouses  

The province of Almeria produces around 3.5 million tons of fruit and vegetables a year in an estimated 78,000 acres of greenhouses. However, it comes with an immense human sacrifice. For years, workers in the southern region have been forced to work in harsh conditions but have chosen to stay silent due to fear of losing their jobs. The region is often referred to as the “giant sea of plastic” due to the fields of greenhouses. Small, individual farms exist alongside those run by multinational companies. Their fruits and vegetables are shipped out immediately to fill the produce bins in Europe’s major supermarkets, such as Tesco and Waitrose.  

 If we don't pick enough fruit each day, we would not be allowed to take a break or go to the toilet. We work for weeks but were only paid for a couple of days

More often than not, the workers’ payslips do not reflect the actual number of hours worked, thus hiding the fact that they receive less than the legally required minimum wage. Workers report that “if you don’t want to work like a slave, you’re out.” When confronted on this issue, employers typically respond that workers are not coerced into accepting the job.  

A Spanish farm owned by Godoy is among those that falsify documents reporting worker pay and hours. The company supplies large British supermarkets such as Aldi and Sainsburys with vegetables, with their peppers particularly popular. According to the Sindicato de Obreros del Camp – Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores, a local farmworkers union in Almeria, Godoy engages in several illegal practices that violate national labour rights. For example, the legal minimum wage is 6,90 euros per hour, yet workers receive as little as 5,33 euros. Workers also are exposed to unhealthy working conditions, such as being forced to spend many hours in the extreme heat of the greenhouses and inhale fertilisers that can damage their respiratory systems.  

Workers' right to negotiate via a united union also is regularly violated. In 2019, migrant workers (mainly from central and north African countries) organised a strike to protest their unjust treatment. In retaliation, Godoy fired eight workers with permanent contracts without prior warning. This has caused other workers to live in constant fear of exercising their rights to negotiate working conditions. Godoy has been called out by the trade union for harassing and verbally abusing workers involved in strikes. When confronted by authorities, officials deny all allegations.  

 

Daily hardships 

Living conditions also endanger workers’ wellbeing. Since they are paid below minimum wage, they are unable to afford sufficient nutritious food, causing or contributing to health problems. Likewise, workers are unable to afford proper health care or assure security in the neighborhoods in which they must live. 

Workers live in very cramped conditions in shelters that resemble refugee camps or shantytowns, with no reliable access to clean water, electricity and sanitation. Employers make no improvements to the workers' living conditions over their years of operation, but workers have no choice but to live there. 

Due to poor construction material, the shelters are easily damaged by bad weather conditions, fires and even slight rainfall. The buildings are made of scraps of wood and plastic, and because electricity is inconsistent, workers make do with gas canisters and open fires—both hazardous. In February 2019, fire erupted from a cooking gas canister, destroying part of the shelter and leaving over 120 workers homeless. 

Since the region is a gateway into Europe for most migrants arriving from Africa, employers have a ready pool of labor to exploit. Approximately 400 boats arrive in the region yearly, carrying an estimated total of 12,000 migrants. The poor living working conditions for migrants in Almeria are common throughout Spain. Due to a lack of housing, discrimination is common and migrant workers are forced into crowded conditions. In addition, these workers can be evicted at any moment.  

According to local authorities, more than 30% of migrant workers are undocumented, since employers refuse to provide contracts. Thus, undocumented workers are unable even to travel home to their families, leaving them literally abandoned in a foreign country. If undocumented have no proof of identity, attempt to use the ID of another person or have no proof of work, they often are detained by local law enforcement. With no understanding of the legal system of their new home, and without the necessary funds, the migrants are unable to get any legal aid. 

 

The price of strawberries: Abuse and sexual assault in the fields of Huelva  

Huelva produces 95% of Spain's strawberries, most of which are sent straight to European supermarkets. Much of the region's economic success comes at the expense of migrant workers. Most of the women who work on the strawberry farms come from Morocco. A few brave enough to speak up about poor working conditions have filed lawsuits charging sexual harassment, assault, human trafficking and rape. Abortions are not uncommon. However, most of the women keep silent, in part out of fear of the reaction of family and friends. Some husbands have divorced their wives due to the “dishonor” brought upon their families. 

Coming from conservative families, many women are blamed and shamed when speaking up about sexual abuse. They may be disowned by their parents. This can lead to severe mental health issues, panic attacks and disconnection from any support system they may have had. 

“We were shown videos of nice houses… but when we arrived, we were shown into a place that was filthy and crowded. The farm owner only knew one phrase in Arabic: ‘work, b***, or you will be sent back to Morocco’,” said one woman to , who added that if they did not pick enough fruit each day, they were not allowed to take a break or go to the toilet. They worked for weeks but were only paid for a couple of days, leaving them feeling like slaves or prostitutes. 

“We were told we would be treated like professional workers… but when we got to Spain, they made us feel like animals,” recounts a mother of one. Another worker stated that when she and other coworkers complained and asked for the promised amount of pay, buses arrived at their shelters and they were sent back to Morocco. When they arrived back home, unpaid debts awaited them due to the purchase of visas so they could come to Spain. They ended up in a bigger financial crisis than before they left. 

No formal investigations into the abuse allegations by Spanish authorities, who continue to turn a blind eye to the exploitation that is taking place, choosing to deny all claims. 

 

Recommendations 

ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies calls for:

  • Spanish vegetable and fruit farmers to assess their policies and comply with state work obligations, ensuring workers their right to liberties such as free assembly via trade unions and freedom of speech/expression. 

  • Spanish authorities to investigate allegations of sexual abuse and labor exploitation, and ensure any wrongs proven are addressed. 

  • An industry-wide protocol be put into place to ensure employers implement ethical work practices. 

  • Review and enforcement of labor laws.