Abusive working conditions endemic in Spain’s strawberry farms, report claims

Abusive conditions are endemic in parts of Spain’s fruit sector, a new report alleges, with workers telling the Guardian they have been regularly underpaid and forced to live in dilapidated shacks.

During the winter, at least 60% of strawberries eaten in the UK are likely to be from vast farms across the south-west Spanish province of Huelva. In 2020, the UK imported €310m (£272m) worth of the fruit from the Andalucia region, of which 91% is believed to be grown in Huelva.

But the fruit-picking workforce in the region – dominated by migrants from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa – are frequently paid less than the minimum wage and required to work overtime without pay, according to a new report from the organisation Ethical Consumer.

Some workers also allege that they are docked up to three days’ pay if they do not meet employers’ demands, are prevented from using the toilet, and have their passports or wages withheld to keep them working.

“It’s not the one-off farm, it’s not the occasional supplier – it’s widespread across the major exporting areas,” said Jasmine Owens, one of the authors of the report.

In a recent visit to the Huelva region, the Guardian spoke to 10 workers and two former farm workers. Nine of the workers claimed they were being paid less than the legal minimum daily, which now stands at €51.15 (£45).

Each morning Aziza, a 53-year-old undocumented worker from Morocco, walks from farm to farm, in hopes of landing a day’s work. Last year she did find work, earning about €40 a day – under the legal daily wage. “Since I don’t have any papers, I don’t have the right to file a complaint,” she said.

Thousands of workers live next to the polytunnels in which the strawberries are grown, in shacks cobbled together out of scrap and plastic sheets foraged from greenhouses, with no sanitation, running water or electricity.

The workforce in Huelva also includes those who are part of a bilateral programme, launched by Spain and Morocco in 2001, which brings thousands of Moroccans to Huelva for up to nine months a year to work on the strawberry harvest.

Despite reports linking the scheme to sexual violence and reports of employers withholding identity documents or wages, Spanish officials announced in September that the programme would be expanded to bring as many as 15,350 temporary workers to Huelva this year – an increase of 5,000 people over last year.

“You would work the entire month and they might pay you for 16 days,” said Soumia, a Moroccan who spent 14 years working in the bilateral programme. Her evenings were limited by her employer’s 10pm curfew, enforced by docking one day’s work for anyone who showed up late, she claimed. Still, she returned year after year, leaving her two daughters behind in Morocco.

“We need these jobs in order to put food on the table. Everyone takes advantage of our situation,” she said.

Trade unions and rights organisations have long documented the programme’s preference for mothers between 25 and 45 years of age, as they are considered more likely to return to their home country after their contract ends.

As the government scheme contractually ties the worker to an employer, and requires officials’ authorisation to change jobs, the organisations allege that it creates the conditions for forced labour.

The result is that the women were highly vulnerable to exploitation and less likely to report abusive situations, said Silvina Gorsky, a sociologist who works with a group of lawyers in Andalusia that provides legal assistance to workers. “It’s not that they happen to be vulnerable,” she said. “It’s that they are specifically chosen that way.”

While there were companies in Huelva’s strawberry fields that paid their workers fairly, these companies were a minority, said José Antonio Brazo, of Soc-Sat, a local farmworkers’ union that fielded more than 1,000 complaints in Huelva related to exploitation and working conditions in 2019.

In a statement to the Guardian, Spain’s labour ministry said it was “fully committed” to resolving the issue, adding that it was in constant contact with workers’ unions and other “affected groups” in the sector.

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Last year the ministry carried out 4,245 inspections on farms in Huelva, it added. A total of 189 violations were detected – involving more than 2,800 people – resulting in fines of €1.6m.

Interfresa, a trade association representing 1,300 producers in Andalusia’s strawberry industry, said that it “had not seen any evidence of inappropriate practices by employers”. Companies were required to comply with the law, it added, and no workers could be paid below the minimum wage.

Regarding contracting temporary workers from Morocco, it said: “Farm work requires labourers of a certain fitness level for tasks involved in harvesting. This is precisely why women between the ages of 25 and 45 are a commonly found profile.”

The British Retail Consortium, which represents the UK’s major supermarkets, said that retailers were committed to upholding the rights of all workers in the supply chain.

“Retailers are concerned by these reports and take these allegations very seriously,” said Sophie De Salis, a policy adviser with the BRC. “Once those behind the original report share the evidence, retailers will be in a position to thoroughly investigate and take any necessary action.”