Strawberries, a symbol of British summertime, have long been tainted by the myriad human rights abuses that take place before they arrive on our supermarket shelves. In the summer of Covid-19, these abusive practices have reached their apex.
The supply chains of supermarkets like Tesco and Marks and Spencer trace back to Huelva, in southern Spain, a region responsible for 85% of the country’s strawberry exports. The local economy in Huelva is built around fruit farms, run by multinational companies that have for decades relied on labour exploitation and systematic abuse to meet high export targets.
Since the onset of the pandemic the situation has got worse, say rights groups, unions and the former United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston.
“They [migrant workers] live in a situation that makes a mockery of invocations to wash your hands constantly, social distance, and shelter in place,” Alston told Novara Media.
José Antonio, a spokesperson for Andalusian trade union Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (SAT), said his organisation has been aware of human rights abuses taking place on Huelva’s farms since at least 2000.
“We have known about the abuses, all of them – labour, psychological and physical – for decades,” he told Novara Media. But Covid has presented new challenges.
“With the appearance of the Covid-19, this situation and fear have worsened, the main concern is now health as there has been no prevention against the virus,” he said.
In 2001 Spain and Morocco signed a bilateral agreement to allow Moroccan workers visas to undertake seasonal work in Spain, making a new pool of labourers available to fruit companies that, according to Antonio, were already fast developing a track record of abuse and exploitation.
These migrant workers are now estimated to make up about 35% of the total labour involved in strawberry harvesting, and they make up the majority of workers doing the most physically demanding tasks. Most of them are women.
Many are housed in unsanitary and dilapidated shantytowns, without access to running water. It’s not uncommon for migrant workers to be forced to sleep in makeshift shelters constructed with pallets and plastic from the greenhouses in which they are working.
The region’s farms would normally rely on at least 14,000 migrant workers during strawberry season, but it is estimated that no more than half that number made it to Spain this year before the country closed its borders on 12 March.
In addition to the exploitative conditions fruit companies have long deployed to keep their profits up, dangerously high productivity targets are being set for those workers who did make it over.
Ana Pinto, spokesperson for workers’ rights group Jornaleras en Lucha, told the Guardian the labour shortage had led to already vulnerable migrant workers being placed under more pressure.
“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.”
Madrid-based legal charity Women’s Link said most workers are not being provided with personal protective equipment or cleaning products and no measures have been put in place to ensure social distancing.
The charity said most of the labourers it had heard from were unable to access basic healthcare or legal assistance. Many migrant workers speak no Spanish and rely on transport provided by their employer in order to travel to nearby towns, cutting off many avenues of support.
Women employed on the farms often feel under intense pressure to tolerate exploitative practices, explained Hannah Wilson, a staff lawyer for Women’s Link.
“When the companies are hiring in Morocco they’re targeting women because they’re stereotypically considered a bit more docile and easier to control,” Wilson told Novara Media. Employers believe that pressure to support a family will translate into pressure to work hard even under poor conditions, she explained. “Specifically they’re targeting women who are heads of households and particularly women who have dependent children, with the knowledge that their children are in Morocco waiting for the money.”
Wilson believes this decision does not have a strong legal basis and instead may indicate an unwillingness by the legal system to look into the current visa agreement and to accept how widespread the exploitative hiring practices seen on Huelva’s fruit farms could actually be.
In the absence of any action from the authorities, and with Spanish courts facing a massive backlog since Covid-19 halted proceedings, organising and engaging in mutual aid on the ground is becoming all the more important in the short-term.
SAT has launched protests and direct action under the banner ‘Strawberries Yes, but with Rights’ in the fields and warehouses of many of the region’s major companies. Antonio said the majority of those he had seen taking part were migrant workers.
SAT has also put in around 100 complaints to the civil guard, Antonio added, demanding an inspection of current working practices on the farms.
In response to the pandemic in Huelva and Almeria more widely, SAT is also helping communities by providing essentials like food, soap and medication to anyone who needs them.
Despite years of inaction by the authorities, Antonia said he remains hopeful. “The causes we fight for are worthy and just,” he said. “Although it is difficult, it is not impossible. Someday we will achieve them.”