The plight of Spain’s migrant workers

Coronavirus is exposing the problems faced by day labourers in southern Spain, who have for many years worked in appalling conditions to supply fruit and vegetables for supermarkets in the UK. Clare Carlile of Ethical Consumer explains.

A worker wraps an iceberg lettuce at a lettuce plantation in Pulpi, near Almeria, southeast Spain February 13, 2017. Picture taken February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jon Nazca
A worker wraps an iceberg lettuce at a lettuce plantation in Pulpi,
near Almeria, southeast Spain February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

In the ‘sea of plastic’ in southern Spain, thousands of migrant workers have been left without access to running water, food or basic sanitation, under the harsh lockdown conditions

The regions of Almeria and Huelva provide much of the fruit and vegetables exported from Spain to the UK. The area covered by greenhouses is so vast it can be seen from space. Between the farms, workers live in shantytowns, in dwellings made from cardboard, pallets and plastic from the greenhouses.

Since Spain introduced lockdown measures on 14 March, those living in the shanty towns have been told that they cannot leave these settlements. Yet the closest source of running water is sometimes several kilometres away, according to a UN report published in January.

Amadou*, who lives in Lepe settlement in Huelva, says there are many people who have nothing to eat and no clean drinking water.

When workers try to demand better conditions they face systematic reprisals. Hosein said that he was given an unsafe job after being involved in a strike

He adds that promised government support has failed to materialize. ‘We’re living here, feeling scared and afraid, because up until now we haven’t received any kind of help, not in terms of water, gloves or face masks.’

Already living a hand-to-mouth existence, many workers now have no income to pay for food, medicine or other basic supplies. Without running water, and in crowded living conditions, many are unable to follow health protocols and are scared that coronavirus will spread amongst them.

Due to travel restrictions and companies pausing operations, many are now out of work. SOC-SAT, a rural workers’ union in Almeria, has stated that companies are using the pandemic as an excuse to make covert lay-offs.

A hand-to-mouth existence

There is no doubt that the coronavirus has pushed the situation to a crisis point; but it highlights an ongoing systematic failure of employers, the government and supermarkets over many years.

Even before the crisis, UN Special Rapporteur on poverty, Phillip Alston, visited Huelva and was stunned by the conditions he found there. ‘I met with workers living in a migrant settlement in conditions that rival the worst I have seen anywhere in the world,’ he writes in a UN report.

Over the past 10 years, workers in Almeria and Huelva have repeatedly reported being paid lower than the minimum wage, unsafe working conditions and continual union-busting tactics.

‘The same story is heard over and over,’ Delia McGrath from SOC-SAT writes in Ethical Consumer.

‘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,’ she adds.

In the same article, we reported that a 27-year-old worker had died after overexposure to agricultural chemicals, and that this was no isolated incident.

In an interview later that year, Mohammed*, who works in Almeria, told Ethical Consumer, about a colleague: ‘This man has collapsed three times. They have obliged him to spray [agricultural chemicals on the crops], or get out. If he refuses, they will sanction him.’

Another worker, Hosein*, showed scars on his hands and wrists from cleaning the channels on the roof of the greenhouse. ‘It’s like being in a circus. I have nothing to protect me, no helmet, no safety harness, no special shoes,’ he said.

When workers try to demand better conditions they face systematic reprisals. Hosein said that he was given an unsafe job after being involved in a strike against his employer.

Workers at a farm in Almeria, owned by a company called Godoy, tried to elect a union representative. The union members reported facing verbal and physical intimidation after a company lawyer attempted to prevent the election taking place.

In Huelva, unions and workers claim that women are often employed because companies believe that they’ll be easier to exploit. Single mothers – widows or divorcees in particular – are recruited from Morocco and promised accommodation and a salary. If accommodation is provided, it is often without running water or electricity. In recent years, there have also been multiple allegations of rape and sexual assault against employers.


Grassroots organizations in the region, however, are now providing relief. Amadou is a member of the Collective of African Workers in Huelva, a group that has been campaigning for an ‘end to the shanty towns’ and is providing supplies during the pandemic.

In Almeria and Huelva, SOC-SAT is also providing much needed food, soap, nappies and medicine.

‘They speak in the name of everyone so that our rights are not lost,’ says Malika*, who lives in Atocheres settlement in Almeria.

She adds: ‘Thanks to these organizations we can avoid the exploitation to which we’re exposed.’

Donate to Ethical Consumer’s joint Crowdfunder with the organizations, to provide relief for essential supplies and medicine during the crisis.

*Not their real names.