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Agricultural workers’ rights abuses in Spain

The same story is heard over and over: the minimum salary is not paid, the workers’ national insurance contribution is not paid for all the days worked, no rest break, no holiday pay, no transport costs, many hours extra worked but no overtime paid, writes Delia McGrath from La Via Campesina on the UK consumer organisation Ethical Consumer web pages.

The small family-run greenhouses growing peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, beans and melons for the Northern European supermarkets are gone. Now, big corporations, often with international finance, construct massive, state-of-the-art structures and the earth is mined for water. Their gigantic greenhouses absorb a daily stream of workers from Morocco, sub-Saharan Africa and, decreasingly, from Eastern Europe and Andalusia. Shanty towns have grown up, periodically razed by the local councils. Uninhabitable buildings, often with no water supply, are divided up and rented out to house the immigrants who continue to arrive, risking their lives on precarious crafts organised by mafias that use the proximity of Andalusia to Africa to profit from the journey.

On 21st January, a twenty-seven-year-old worker died following exposure to agricultural chemicals on one of Nijar’s farms. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. The union SOC-SAT says that labourers are often expected to continue working whilst chemicals are being sprayed in the greenhouses, without safety equipment, and are even expected to take breaks and eat lunches there.

Recently, the eye of the storm has centred on Godoy Hortalizas, the Spanish supplier for Nationwide Produce PLC. In January, Godoy workers voted to strike indefinitely, stating that the company was avoiding paying the minimum basic salary and allowing poor working conditions, including unsafe use of agricultural chemicals. Many workers had joined the trade union and elections for a representative had recently been scheduled. SOC-SAT says that the company lawyer tried to stop them taking place and that, on the day of the elections, there was physical and verbal intimidation but, of course, the right to unionise is protected by law. After just three days, the strike was successful, with the company agreeing to a labour agreement protecting wages, working hours and transportation.

It is estimated that Almeria, as a Spanish province, has more than 30% of its economy undeclared: the majority of this economy is formed of illegal immigrants, who can be easily exploited and lack protection by the law. Ironically, if the immigrants stopped work, or went back to their countries, the salad industry would collapse.

The system of declaring days worked at the end of the month by the company for national insurance purposes is the backbone of the main fraud committed against both the state and the employees. SOC-SAT says that this is how fraudulent evidence is presented to quality certifiers like Global GAP, Naturland and BioSuisse. Supermarkets use these schemes for assurance that their suppliers are meeting minimum labour requirements. The certifiers see wage slips that show that a person has worked x days in the month, with the necessary contributions paid by the employers. But, in fact, s/he has often worked for many more undeclared days and hours daily, which will never contribute to their pension or other benefits. In this way, “Global GAP is whitewashing the exploitation in agriculture in Almeria”.

Unfortunately, both the supermarkets and their suppliers lack transparency about where their agricultural products come from. Often, supermarkets buy through an importer, rather than the farm itself, which makes it even harder to know the origin of the produce.

There has been very little improvement in the vegetable growers’ conditions, according to SOC-SAT, but there are now workers who are brave enough to stand up and start to organise themselves. Many of the immigrants have already lived there for a decade or two, their children are growing up and they find they cannot live on the salary they receive.

Credit: SOC-SAT, striking workers protest conditions at Godoy Hortalizas


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