How Ethical Is Our European-Grown Produce?
Our supermarkets are brimming with Spanish produce: green beans, strawberries, aubergines, watermelons... If you live in a European country, chances are that you enjoy produce grown in the greenhouses of Almería, a region in the South-East of Spain. Here’s the side of Almerían greenhouse farming you don’t see.
The history behind cheap labour in Almería
Despite making up only 1.7% of the surface of the country, Almería exported close to half of the value of Spanish fruits and vegetables in 2014, including more than half of Spain’s tomatoes and 70% of its peppers.1,2,3 These high yields are a result of the largest hub of greenhouses in the world. What started as a government funded plan in 1963 resulted in roughly 32,000 hectares of plastic greenhouses - collectively covering an area significantly larger than the city of Amsterdam!4
Often called the “Spanish Miracle” by economists in Spain, the development of this booming agrosystem was caused by a range of factors that came together at just the right time: the government investing in agriculture, Spain joining the EU (allowing it to sell vegetables to the region tariff-free) and the birth of several innovations in agrotechnology, allowing farmers to optimize growing conditions.5,6
In the 1960s and 1970s, properties were run entirely by families, but as these then-smallholder farms entered global food chains, they had to scale up their operations and cut costs to meet price demands. This resulted in farm work relying heavily on the cheap labour of migrant workers, mostly coming from Northern African and Eastern European countries.6,7,8
Life for greenhouse labourers in Almería
Today, the Almería growing region houses an estimated 100,000 migrant workers, many of which are living in chabolas (informal shacks) with make-shift housing constructed from waste materials. More often than not, chabolas lack running water, electricity and sanitation facilities needed to support a reasonable standard of living. Depression, boredom, and drug use are reportedly common in the chabolas.9
To find work in the greenhouses, many prospective workers wait in the surroundings of urbanized centers for vans of duty managers to drive past and recruit them. If they are selected, they will be hired - either legally or illegally, depending on their citizenship status. Eventually, if workers save up enough money they may move to urban areas in the vicinity, but even there they are often met with racism and xenophobia by part of the local population and used as scapegoats by some political parties for a multitude of issues.9,10
High temperatures and exposure to chemicals
The greenhouse labourers often work in harsh conditions, with temperatures reaching up to 50°C, very few breaks, and daily exposure to harmful pesticides. Recent investigations have revealed incidents of farmworkers fainting, vomiting, and, in rare cases, dying from exhaustion.9,11 While this is dangerous work for anyone, it is an extra risk for undocumented migrant workers as they have no access to the Spanish healthcare system and are not covered by employers.
Low salaries and no job security
Job security is a luxury in the greenhouse region, with employers only providing a formal contract for around 64% of workers, leaving many migrant workers without official proof of work.10 Due to lack of legal support and language barriers, workers are also often paid less than promised, are forced to exceed agreed working hours, are not paid for holiday leave, and will live under constant fear that they could be dismissed any day without any reasonable warning.12
Lack of protection
Since the production of food from the region was still needed to fuel Spain and broader Europe during the pandemic, labour in the greenhouses continued. Unfortunately, a number of COVID-19 outbreaks in chabolas have been reported, and workers have told several journalists about the lack of protection offered in the greenhouses.13 Although we ask these workers to put their life on the line for us everyday, this blind eye to their safety and health reveals how the vital work of the modern-day farmer is still commonly disregarded by businesses and importers seeking to turn profits.14
Who is to blame?
It is not uncommon for farm owners to attribute practices of labour exploitation to the pressures, demands and competitiveness of global food markets.15 Many producers have claimed that it is a vicious cycle driven by their own small profits inhibiting their ability to cover production costs, let alone from paying their workers properly leads to exploitative conditions we see today.16,17 And perhaps there is an element of truth to this. But, the responsibility is hard to pin on just one culprit.
The perpetuation of exploitative food systems stems from a number of factors. One of these is the unreliable and shrinking profit margins for food producers, partly caused by long supply chains and supermarkets’ desire to maximize profits. Another relevant aspect is a general undervaluing of farm work as a consequence of (and in addition to) a general sense of detachment from the origins of our food. And lastly, even more broadly and complexly, lie the geopolitical disparities that lead humans to migrate to countries with attractive higher incomes and a larger number of job prospects.16,17
How can we end labour exploitation?
The exploitation of workers in the greenhouses of Almería isn’t a new issue for those who have power to solve it: UN officials and journalists have been speaking out on the issue for decades.18, 19, 20 While Spain is one of the European countries with the most cases of labour exploitation, the issue is also prevalent across Portugal, Italy and beyond.21, 22, 23
So why has no action been taken? While many other factors play in, the continued exploitative conditions are largely a result of the dismissal of responsibility from many of the stakeholders involved. This lack of ownership is also exacerbated by the vulnerability of migrant labour workers - with many cases of inhumane working and living conditions left unreported for fear of being deported or fired.24 But while the solutions to issues have proven difficult to achieve, there are a number of movements currently fighting to give voice to Almerian greenhouse workers.
Organisations such as La Via Campesina, Ethical Consumer, and Info Migrants, along with investigative journalists, have drawn awareness to the unethical practices in the greenhouses.25, 26, 27 Many migrant workers also frequently protest the poor conditions to which they are subjected, despite the risk of loss of employment, arrest, or deportation.28 There are also local farmers’ unions such as SOC-SAT which facilitate these confrontations and demands for change.29
These and other organisations are fighting for legislation that protects the rights of migrant workers and facilitates the unionization that will give voice to those in vulnerable positions.25 They also emphasise the need for a shift within governments, companies and individuals in the way we see food and farm work, claiming that the farming profession should be acknowledged as indispensable and skilled work.22
Demand transparency from suppliers
Some actions we can already take today are to put pressure on our supermarkets and demand more transparency from our suppliers about the way our food is sourced. We must also remain curious about the origins of food, and to join the movement of acknowledging those who pick and grow what ends up on our plate.