Spain’s Mar del Plastico (Plastic Sea), the 31,000 hectares (76,600 acres) of farms and greenhouses in the region of Andalucía known as “Europe’s garden”. El Barranquete is one of the poorest of 92 informal worker slums that have sprung up around the vast farms of Almería and which are now home to an estimated 7,000-10,000 people. Many of El Barranquete’s inhabitants don’t have electricity, running water or sanitation. The tens of thousands of migrant workers working in the province are vital to the Spanish economy and pan-European food supply chains. In two weeks, the greenhouses of Almería will be at their busiest as the high season for tomatoes, peppers and salad begins.
Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, says the situation facing migrant workers in southern Spain is a human tragedy. For decades, the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers in Spain has been widely condemned by UN officials and human rights campaigners, but to little effect.
When he first arrived in Spain, Hassan was stunned by how the workers were treated on the farms. Like other workers in El Barranquete, Hassan says he earns only about €5 (£4.50) an hour, well under the legal minimum wage. “The working conditions are terrible,” he says. “Sometimes we work from sunup to sundown in extreme heat, with only a 30-minute break in the whole day.” Now, as Almería faces a wave of Covid-19 infections, workers say they have been left completely unprotected. “We pick your food,” says Hassan. “But our health doesn’t matter to anyone.” Hassan knows that his work and living conditions make him vulnerable to becoming infected with Covid-19. When asked whether he is supplied with PPE at work, Hassan laughs. “Gloves and face masks in the greenhouse? Temperature checks?” he says. “They don’t give you anything.” Like many of the people living in the settlements, he say he is more scared of not being able to work than they of becoming ill. If he can’t send money home, his children don’t eat.
A joint supply chain investigation by Ethical Consumer magazine has linked many of these workers to the supply chains of UK supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Lidl and Aldi. All claimed to be facing systemic labour exploitation before and throughout the pandemic such as non-payment of wages and being kept on illegal temporary contracts. Many described being forced to work in a culture of fear and intimidation. Some of those who complained about conditions said they had been sacked or blacklisted.
Workers employed by Spanish food companies linked to UK supermarkets also claimed that throughout the pandemic they have been denied access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) that under Spanish law they are entitled to as essential workers. Many said they were not given enough face masks, gloves or hand sanitiser and have been unable to socially distance at work. One man employed at a big food company supplying the UK says that he has only been given two face masks in six months. Spain is experiencing the highest numbers of new Covid-19 infections in Europe, with the province of Almería recording more than 100 new cases a day. There have been multiple outbreaks on farms across the province and in the cortijos, the dilapidated housing blocks near the farms in which workers live.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the unacceptable conditions facing migrant workers and the Spanish government must urgently act. But two-thirds of all fruit and vegetables consumed across Europe and the UK come from these greenhouses and all the companies and retailers up these supply chains have a responsibility to these workers as well,” Olivier De Schutter says.
As Covid-19 infections rise, medical charities such as as Médicos del Mundo are supplying masks, gloves and temperature checks in the settlements in scenes more reminiscent of a disaster zone than one of the richest countries in the world.
“People want to protect themselves, but they cannot”, says Almudena Puertas from the NGO Cáritas. “They are here because there is work and we need them.”
One groups of workers say that they lost their jobs after testing positive for Covid-19 and quarantining at home. Muhammad, a farm worker from Morocco, said that when he and others had recovered and returned to work, some of them were told there was no work for them.
“When I contracted Covid-19, I’d already spent two years working for this company without papers and two years on a temporary contract, but when I came back they said there is nothing for me here,” he says. He says he and the other workers who did not get their jobs back also did not receive the sick pay they were entitled to as essential workers.
The Soc-Sat union, which represents agricultural workers across Almería, says the failure to provide farm workers with basic PPE speaks to the culture of impunity that surrounds the mistreatment of Spain’s migrant workforce.
“Around 80% of fruit companies in Almería are breaking the law,” says José García Cuevas, a Soc-Sat union leader. The union says that across the region, widespread fraud is being perpetrated on the farm workers. “People will work 25 days but their employers will only count 10,” he says. “Or when you look at the payslips, it says €58 a day, which is minimum wage but that’s not what the worker is receiving.” He says that according to figures from the General Union of Workers, workers lose out on up to €50m of wages every year. “If, under normal conditions, health and safety regulations are not followed, you can imagine what’s happening in the current situation with a pandemic,” says García Cuevas.
“If you complain, they will say: ‘If you don’t want to work here then go home,’” Ali, a farm worker says. “Every worker here has a family, a wife and children, but the only thing that matters is that we work to get the vegetables to Germany or the UK. It’s like they have forgotten we are also human beings.”