It is the end of another day for Hassan, a migrant worker from Morocco who has spent the past 12 hours under a sweltering late summer sun harvesting vegetables in one of the vast greenhouses of Almería, southern Spain.
The vegetables he has dug from the red dirt are destined for dinner plates all over Europe. UK supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Lidl and Aldi all source fruit and vegetables from Almería. The tens of thousands of migrant workers working in the province are vital to the Spanish economy and pan-European food supply chains. Throughout the pandemic, they have held essential worker status, labouring in the fields while millions across the world sheltered inside.
Yet tonight, Hassan will return to the squalor and rubbish piles of El Barranquete, one of the poorest of 92 informal worker slums that have sprung up around the vast farms of Almería and which are now home to an estimated 7,000-10,000 people.
Here, in the middle of Spain’s Mar del Plastico (Plastic Sea), the 31,000 hectares (76,600 acres) of farms and greenhouses in the region of Andalucía known as “Europe’s garden”, many of El Barranquete’s inhabitants don’t have electricity, running water or sanitation.
Inside the Plastic Sea is El Barranquete shantytown, where houses are constructed from dumped rubbish
Hassan’s house, like all the others in El Barranquete, is constructed from whatever he could find on rubbish dumps or the side of the road; pieces of plastic foraged from the greenhouses, flaps of cardboard and old hosing tied around lumps of wood. Under Spain’s blazing sun, the temperature can reach 50C – at night the plastic sheeting releases toxic carcinogenic fumes while he sleeps.
When he first arrived in Spain, Hassan was stunned by how the workers were treated on the farms. Like other workers in El Barranquete, Hassan says he earns only about €5 (£4.50) an hour, well under the legal minimum wage. “The working conditions are terrible,” he says. “Sometimes we work from sunup to sundown in extreme heat, with only a 30-minute break in the whole day.”
Now, as Almería faces a wave of Covid-19 infections, workers say they have been left completely unprotected. “We pick your food,” says Hassan. “But our health doesn’t matter to anyone.”
Top: One of the few water sources in Don Domingo shantytown. Below: a worker collects water in Don Domingo, and toxic containers workers at El Nazareno settlement use to store drinking water
In August, the Observer interviewed more than 45 migrants employed as farm workers in Almería. A joint supply chain investigation by Ethical Consumer magazine has linked many of these workers to the supply chains of UK supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Lidl and Aldi.
All claimed to be facing systemic labour exploitation before and throughout the pandemic such as non-payment of wages and being kept on illegal temporary contracts. Many described being forced to work in a culture of fear and intimidation. Some of those who complained about conditions said they had been sacked or blacklisted.
Workers employed by Spanish food companies linked to UK supermarkets also claimed that throughout the pandemic they have been denied access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) that under Spanish law they are entitled to as essential workers. Many said they were not given enough face masks, gloves or hand sanitiser and have been unable to socially distance at work.
One man employed at a big food company supplying the UK says that he has only been given two face masks in six months.
In response to the investigation, the British Retail Consortium – members of which include Sainsbury’s, Asda, Lidl and Aldi – released a statement calling on the Spanish government to launch an inquiry.
Commenting on the Observer’s findings, Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, says the situation facing migrant workers in southern Spain is a human tragedy.
Top: migrant workers in El Nazareno, and families in the shantytowns of La Molineta (left) and Don Domingo
“The pandemic has exacerbated the unacceptable conditions facing migrant workers and the Spanish government must urgently act. But two-thirds of all fruit and vegetables consumed across Europe and the UK come from these greenhouses and all the companies and retailers up these supply chains have a responsibility to these workers as well,” he says.
Spain is experiencing the highest numbers of new Covid-19 infections in Europe, with the province of Almería recording more than 100 new cases a day.
Despite the local government in Almería claiming that the virus has not reached the plastic settlements, there have been multiple outbreaks on farms across the province and in the cortijos, the dilapidated housing blocks near the farms in which workers live.
As Covid-19 infections rise, medical charities such as as Médicos del Mundo are supplying masks, gloves and temperature checks in the settlements in scenes more reminiscent of a disaster zone than one of the richest countries in the world.
Medical charities provide support in El Nazareno and (bottom right) Don Domingo
“People want to protect themselves, but they cannot”, says Almudena Puertas from the NGO Cáritas. “They are here because there is work and we need them.”
In the past month, the local government in Andalucía has allocated €1.1m to create better health and safety conditions, but critics say they have yet to see any significant improvements.
Poor working and living conditions leave workers vulnerable to Covid, but most are more worried about not being able to work than being ill
“I do not understand why these people are not being rehoused in better accommodation. Do we have to wait for them to get Covid instead of looking for a much more dignified place, with adequate hygienic conditions?” says, Diego Crespo, a Forward Andalucía party MP.
Hassan knows that his work and living conditions make him vulnerable to becoming infected with Covid-19. When asked whether he is supplied with PPE at work, Hassan laughs. “Gloves and face masks in the greenhouse? Temperature checks?” he says. “They don’t give you anything.”
Like many of the people living in the settlements, he say he is more scared of not being able to work than they of becoming ill. If he can’t send money home, his children don’t eat.
One groups of workers say that they lost their jobs after testing positive for Covid-19 and quarantining at home. Muhammad, a farm worker from Morocco, said that when he and others had recovered and returned to work, some of them were told there was no work for them.
“When I contracted Covid-19, I’d already spent two years working for this company without papers and two years on a temporary contract, but when I came back they said there is nothing for me here,” he says. He says he and the other workers who did not get their jobs back also did not receive the sick pay they were entitled to as essential workers.
The Soc-Sat union, which represents agricultural workers across Almería, says the failure to provide farm workers with basic PPE speaks to the culture of impunity that surrounds the mistreatment of Spain’s migrant workforce.
“Around 80% of fruit companies in Almería are breaking the law,” says José García Cuevas, a Soc-Sat union leader. The union says that across the region, widespread fraud is being perpetrated on the farm workers. “People will work 25 days but their employers will only count 10,” he says. “Or when you look at the payslips, it says €58 a day, which is minimum wage but that’s not what the worker is receiving.” He says that according to figures from the General Union of Workers, workers lose out on up to €50m of wages every year.
For decades, the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers in Spain has been widely condemned by UN officials and human rights campaigners, but to little effect.
Soc-Sat says that in 2019 it dealt with more than 1,000 complaints from migrant workers about exploitation and working conditions. This year it also says it has helped workers file legal complaints against food companies in Almería for breaching labour laws and not providing adequate PPE.
Inside some of the homes in La Nave de la Molineta shantytown
“If, under normal conditions, health and safety regulations are not followed, you can imagine what’s happening in the current situation with a pandemic,” says García Cuevas.
In its statement, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) says its members have zero tolerance for labour exploitation: “Many grocery members have funded and supported the Spain Ethical Trade Supplier Forums ... We call on the Spanish government to launch an investigation into labour conditions in the Almería region to help our members stamp out any exploitative practices.”
In a separate statement, Tesco says it was aware of the issues surrounding migrant workers in Southern Spain and that the company worked closely with growers, suppliers and Spanish ethical trade forums to ensure good standards.
The Andalucían Ministry for Labour, Training and Self-Employment in Andalucía said that it had delivered training for businesses on how to protect workers against Covid-19. In a statement it says, “You cannot criminalise an entire sector that is subject to all kinds of controls by the labour, health and other authorities and that must also abide by strict regulations regarding the protection of workers’ rights and prevention and occupational health.”
The Plastic Sea covers 31,000 hectares
In two weeks, the greenhouses of Almería will be at their busiest as the high season for tomatoes, peppers and salad begins. Ali, a farm worker who has been in Spain for more than 15 years, doesn’t expect his situation to improve.
“If you complain, they will say: ‘If you don’t want to work here then go home,’” he says. “Every worker here has a family, a wife and children, but the only thing that matters is that we work to get the vegetables to Germany or the UK. It’s like they have forgotten we are also human beings.”