Women picking strawberries in Spain for UK supermarkets are facing new forms of exploitation, unions and lawyers warn, as the industry is hit by labour shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
This week a coalition of rights groups and lawyers have appealed to the United Nations to urgently investigate allegations of deteriorating working conditions and a lack of protection for workers against Covid-19 infection.
Every year thousands of migrant workers, mainly women, travel to southern Spain from Morocco on a bilateral visa arrangement to pick soft fruits and berries in Huelva. In early summer the fruit is sent to supermarkets across Europe. Last year, soft fruit exports from Huelva alone were worth €994m.
Spain’s strawberry industry has been plagued by allegations that some Moroccan women working in its export fruit industry have suffered sexual violence, exploitation and assault while working on farms in Huelva.
This year only 7,000 of the estimated 18,000 seasonal workers expected to travel between Morocco and Spain made it to Huelva, as borders shut across Europe in early March to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
Ana Pinto, spokesperson of Jornaleras en Lucha, the workers’ rights group in Huelva, said the labour shortage had led to already vulnerable migrant workers being placed under more pressure to get the fruit off the fields.
“Fewer seasonal workers were able to reach Spain this year,” she said. “This has meant that the conditions in the field, both for locals and for those who have come from abroad, are being much more abusive, [the workers are] having to pick many more kilos, and having to do more overtime.
Masks and gloves are still not being provided, she said: “We reported more than ten companies for not respecting the security measures. In some of them, they are now trying to respect the security distances, making the workers work separately, each in an opposite end of the row. But there are still crowds. The companies have not provided any masks or gloves for anyone, not before nor now.”
Hannah Wilson, a legal advocate at Women’s Link Worldwide in Madrid, a group collecting evidence from unions and workers, said the UN and Spanish authorities need to give the situation urgent attention. “Working and living conditions are worsening. The women aren’t always able to stay 1.5 metres apart, they don’t all have protection or cleaning products. Housing was unsanitary to start with, now people can’t wash their hands, many don’t have access to running water.
Women’s Link and seven other organisations have written to multiple UN agencies outlining what they believe are human rights violations, particularly abuses against women. They are asking the UN to issue a public statement urging the Spanish and Moroccan authorities to protect the human rights of their migrant workforce.
Wilson said: “The vast majority of people involved in picking fruit are women and this Covid 19 crisis is exacerbating existing gender inequalities. These women are vulnerable because they have families at home, young children who are dependent on their income.”
The Guardian has reported on dire and sometimes exploitative conditions in the fruit and vegetable picking regions of southern Spain that supply berries and salad to supermarkets across Europe.
Last month Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited Spain; his report was highly critical of the conditions for migrant workers in Huelva.
“I visited areas I suspect many Spaniards would not recognise as a part of their country,” Alston said. “In Huelva, I met with workers living in a migrant settlement in conditions that rival the worst I have seen anywhere in the world. They are kilometres away from water, and live without electricity or adequate sanitation.
Wilson said there are fears it will be even harder to challenge rights abuses as coronavirus has caused huge delays in the justice system.
“This pandemic has exacerbated all these problems. We were already facing delays, we have been representing four women since 2018 and are still waiting for that case to go to the labour courts.”