The problems for Spain’s migrant workers

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The problems for Spain’s migrant workers

Coronavirus is showing us the problems of day labourers in southern Spain. For many years they have worked in terrible conditions to send fruit and vegetables to supermarkets in the UK. Clare Carlile of Ethical Consumer writes.


A worker wraps a lettuce in Pulpi, near Almeria, southeast Spain February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

In the ‘sea of plastic’ in southern Spain, in the Coronavirus lockdown, thousands of migrant workers are without running water, food, or basic sanitation. Almeria and Huelva grow much of the fruit and vegetables sent from Spain to the UK. The area of greenhouses is so big that you can see it from space. Between the farms, workers live in shantytowns, in houses made from cardboard, pallets, and plastic from the greenhouses.

Since Spain’s lockdown on 14 March, they have told the people in the shanty towns that they cannot leave. But a UN report from January 2020 says the closest running water is sometimes many kilometres away,

Amadou (not his real name) lives in Lepe, in Huelva. He says there are many people with nothing to eat and no clean drinking water.

He says that the government promised help but it has not come. ‘We’re living here, feeling scared and afraid, because up until now we have received no help, no water, gloves, or face masks.’

They already live from day to day but many workers now have no income to pay for food, medicine, or other basic supplies. Without running water, and in crowded living conditions, many cannot follow health protocols and are scared that coronavirus will spread amongst them.

Because of travel restrictions and companies stopping work, many now have no work. SOC-SAT, a rural workers’ union in Almeria, said that companies are using the Coronavirus as a way to lose workers secretly.

A day to day life

The coronavirus has certainly made the situation much worse. But it shows the failure of employers, the government, and supermarkets for many years. Before the crisis, UN Special Rapporteur on poverty, Phillip Alston, visited Huelva. He was shocked by the conditions there. ‘I met with workers living in a migrant settlement in conditions that are near the worst I have seen anywhere in the world,’ he writes in a UN report.

Over the past 10 years, there are reports that they pay workers in Almeria and Huelva less than the minimum wage with unsafe working conditions and they find ways of ignoring the unions.

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

‘The minimum salary is not paid, the workers’ national insurance contribution is not paid, there is no rest break, no holiday pay, no transport costs, no overtime paid for many extra hours worked,’ she says.

In the same article, we reported that a 27-year-old worker died after working with agricultural chemicals, and that this was not the only case. Mohammed (not his real name) works in Almeria. In an interview, he told Ethical Consumer about a colleague, ‘This man has collapsed three times. He had to spray agricultural chemicals on the crops, or get out. If he refuses, they will sanction him.’

Another worker, Hosein (not his real name), showed scars on his hands and wrists from cleaning 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 ask for better conditions, they get problems from the employers. Hosein said that they gave him an unsafe job after he was 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 said there was verbal and physical abuse after a company lawyer tried to stop the election.

In Huelva, unions and workers say that they often employ women because companies think it will be easier to exploit them. They find single mothers – widows or divorcees in particular – from Morocco and promise accommodation and a salary. If there is accommodation, it is often without running water or electricity. In recent years, there have been many reports of rape and sexual assault against employers.


Amadou is a member of the Collective of African Workers in Huelva. It is a group campaigning for an ‘end to the shanty towns’ and is providing food during the Coronavirus.

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

‘They speak for everyone so that we do not lose our rights,’ says Malika (not her real name). She lives in Atocheres in Almeria.

She says: ‘Thanks to these organizations, we can avoid the exploitation.’


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)