This article is provided by Alex Crumbie of Ethical Consumer and does not necessarily express the views of the BRC or its members.
In the regions of Huelva and Almeria in southern Spain, thousands of migrant workers, largely from North Africa, work in gruelling conditions, picking salad vegetables and soft fruits that are sold in UK supermarkets. For more than 20 years, workers have been reporting flagrant abuses of basic rights.
Workers often receive as little as 32 euros for an eight-hour day. Employees are frequently expected to continue working whilst dangerous agrichemicals are being sprayed in the greenhouses or to use them without proper protection. Some workers have been sacked for striking and the local union has reported physical, verbal and legal threats to stop the members electing representatives.
The failure of employers and the government to provide basic rights has resulted in thousands of workers and their families living in make-shift settlements, in housing made out of wooden pallets, cardboard and plastic from the local greenhouses.
Ethical Consumer magazine has been writing about and campaigning on working and living conditions for migrant workers on farms in southern Spain since the beginning of 2019. Over several years we have established strong links with local trade unions and other organisations in the region, which send us regular updates from the ground.
Our research suggests that most, if not all, major supermarkets and food retailers in the UK source fresh fruit and veg from the southern Spain at some point during the year.
We are not the only organisation to be reporting on the situation in southern Spain – eye-opening reports have also been published by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, the BBC, and The Guardian.
What can be done?
We believe that UK supermarkets and food retailers have a responsibility to ensure that the rights of workers in their supply chains are upheld.
We understand that most major supermarkets and food retailers are already aware of these issues, and many have already taken positive steps aimed at addressing the exploitation of workers in southern Spain. For example, the UK’s 11 largest supermarkets support Stronger Together’s Consumer Goods programme, and nine supermarkets sponsor the Ethical Trade Forums which are focused on improving working conditions in the Spanish horticultural sector.
Some supermarkets are also working to map and publicly disclose their food supply chains. For example, Marks & Spencer launched an interactive supply chain map in 2016, which now covers all its tier-one manufacturing sites; Waitrose regularly publishes lists of its tier-one suppliers; and Co-op pledged to share details of its food own-brand tier-one production sites and details of suppliers at all tiers of three of its highest-risk food categories by the end of 2020.
The situation is complex, of course, and positive steps have been taken, but we believe that more can be done to address the issues faced by workers in southern Spain. We urge UK supermarkets to do the following:
1) Comprehensively map supply chains and publish complete lists of suppliers, tracing back to the farms they source from.
2) Establish a whistle blowing hotline and make this available throughout fruit and vegetable supply chains, including to farms and local agricultural unions such as SOC-SAT. Many supermarkets already have whistle blowing hotlines in place, but we urge supermarkets to engage with local trade unions to ensue that these hotlines are made accessible to workers.
3) Regularly engage with agricultural unions like SOC-SAT and local NGOs by providing them with grievance mechanisms.
4) Commit to fully investigating issues reported by unions and NGOs and demand that suppliers redress the problems raised. Publish the results of any investigations and remediation.
5) Put pressure on international certifiers like Global GAP, Naturland, and BioSuisse to improve their audit processes: engage with workers outside of workplaces, away from the hearing and control of the management, where they are not frightened to relate the real labour conditions; and engage with local unions.
6) Put pressure on international certifiers like Global GAP, Naturland, and BioSuisse to establish a whistle blowing hotline and make this available throughout their fruit and vegetable supply chains, including to farm level and agricultural unions such as SOC-SAT.
7) Work with Stronger Together, a multi-stakeholder business-led initiative which aims to reduce modern slavery, particularly forced labour, labour trafficking and other hidden third party exploitation of workers. Stronger Together Spain focuses on issues in Spain, and offers training and resources to companies based in Spain as well as UK retailers.
The above measures are not a definitive list, but would go some way towards addressing the workers rights abuses that are currently endemic in the region. Supermarkets have a responsibility to those in their supply chain, and they also have a responsibility to provide food to consumers that has been grown and picked without the exploitation of workers.
Ethical Consumer will continue to write and campaign on rights of those living and working in southern Spain. We welcome supermarkets and other businesses that wish to engage with us on this matter.