"They suck the blood out of people.’ – Lettuce picker
Salads and vegetables in UK supermarkets are grown by migrant farmworkers who are underpaid, treated like slaves, forced to subsist in filthy conditions and regularly develop health problems associated with pesticides, by a Channel 4 News investigation suggests. Many live in dirty, makeshift shacks constructed from plastic sheeting and wood close to the fields they tend in southern Spain. They are hired by agencies to produce and prepare the vegetables and salads consumers see on supermarket shelves across Britain. Some farm workers say they are forced to work in the vicinity of noxious pesticides, which cause respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and sinus problems. Others say they are regularly underpaid. Migrant workers who produce vegetables exported to the UK said they are forced to work in unsanitary conditions and must use bushes close to where vegetables grow as a toilet. But with high unemployment in Spain, many migrant workers are still desperate to earn a living.
Critics say competition sparked by Lidl and Aldi’s low prices have prompted supermarkets in Britain to engage in exploitative practices in a bid to slash the cost of their produce. All major UK supermarkets are compelled to promote workers’ rights under a worldwide initiative known as the Ethical Trading Initiative. Nevertheless, agricultural firms, which supply vegetables and salad to Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda are implicated in the allegations uncovered by Channel 4. Employment agencies who supply much of the seasonal casual labour are less than rigorous about maintaining ethical standards. Agroherni – a large firm, which sells £22 million worth of herbs, salads and vegetables annually to leading supermarkets in Britain such as Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer - states in its annual accounts for 2010 that it has saved on staff costs by "outsourcing" staff rather than employing them directly.
Conservative MP Richard Drax, a former member of the Environment and Rural Affairs Select Committee, said: “If true, these allegations are appalling. It sounds like effectively slave labor producing food in 2015 which is utterly unacceptable describing the evidence uncovered by Channel 4. Fellow Conservative Neil Parish, who currently serves on the committee, was unsurprised by Channel 4 News’ findings. “There is always a price to pay for cheap imported food; whether it is poor quality, low animal welfare standards or, in this case, the appalling treatment of workers,” he said.
Channel 4’s allegations focus specifically on workers based in Muricia and Almeria in southern Spain. Each year, millions of pounds worth of salad and vegetables are exported to Britain from these regions. Farm labourers for one company, located in Almeria, didn’t complain because their names would be added to a blacklist known as “the list of rotten sardines.” Workers say they are forced to work overtime but often not paid for it and if they refuse they are sometimes blacklisted.
Channel 4 News’ investigation highlighted concerns about laborers for Agroherni. Under EU laws it is illegal for pickers to be in close proximity to pesticide machines as they work. But Channel 4 News filmed dozens of people working in the same field while chemicals were being sprayed. One ex-employee said she was left in horrific pain and required multiple operations on her sinuses, which were aggravated by working in fields where pesticides were routinely sprayed. The woman added: “All that matters to them is fulfilling their clients’ orders. They do not care.” Another worker was rushed to hospital after breathing in fumes. He was signed off by a doctor with bronchitis caused by exposure to pesticides. The following day he was fired by the employment agency Integra Empleo. Workers and unions in the region say exposure to pesticides is common across the industry in southern Spain and is not confined to one company.
Agroherni sources its workers from an employment agency called Integra Empleo, but the laborers claim the agency regularly fails to pay them. One worker said if staff work 26 days, the agency notes this period as 16 or 18 days – deducting up to eight days salary in the process. A worker claimed he had worked 22 days in one month, but was only paid for 17. When he complained, he says he was told: "You've been paid the amount of money you deserve. If you think that's not enough then you can leave." One lettuce picker told the programme: "They suck the blood out of people. You work for two or four months and then they sack you without severance, without payment, without anything. If we work 26 days, they write down 16 or 18. They always steal seven or eight days. It's not right."
There are now more than 40 employment agencies supplying labour to farm growers in the Murcia region and trade unions say abuse of workers' rights is rife. Earlier this year, 5,000 of them turned out to demonstrate on the streets. Local politicians say the problem is widespread across the industry. In the Murcia Regional Assembly, Pujante Diekman of the left coalition IU party said: "I believe that some of the working conditions are similar to slavery in some cases, and I have been able to verify that myself. I have seen it with my own eyes. This is an economy that can be described as slavery or semi-slavery, where workers have been cheated by cold blooded people, by people who have broken the law, plain and simple."