The area of Murcia in the south-east of Spain has a strong trade in vegetable growing. In fact, it supplies much of the green salads for supermarkets in the UK. However, the majority of people who work on these farms are migrant workers struggling to make a living, and a recent documentary by Channel 4 News has revealed their exploitation by the agencies that employed them. While the supermarkets who purchase this produce have argued they were unaware of these working conditions, it goes to show that companies need to be vigilant in ensuring their supply chains uphold ethical standards from start to finish.
As part of its investigation, Channel 4 News spoke to workers employed by an agency called Integra Empleo. One of its main contracts is with the Spanish salad producer, Agroherni, who in turn supplies salads to M&S, Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Asda.
The documentary makers found that workers were routinely maltreated, made to work weeks on end, cheated out of wages and exposed to dangerous chemicals. With a surplus of migrant workers and a still-struggling economy, most were afraid to voice their concerns due to the aggressive stance of their employers.
The Ethical Trading Initiatives rules, which the main UK supermarkets subscribe to, states that workers should be free to voice their complaints without discrimination, treated fairly, not forced to work excessive hours or overtime, receive fair pay and work in safe conditions. However, these rules are not certainly not filtering further down the supply chain.
Channel 4 News producers spoke to workers who said they were being paid by the number of boxes they filled rather than by the hour, as stated in their contract, forcing them to work longer hours. They were also compelled to work overtime under threat of being blacklisted, yet often were not paid for these extra hours. One worker said: “If we work 26 days, they write down 16 or 18. They always steal seven or eight days. It's not right.” When another complained about missing pay, he said he was told: “You've been paid the amount of money you deserve. If you think that's not enough then you can leave.” The prevailing sense was one of desperation.
“I can say that 90% of employment agencies truly don’t respect the rights of workers. What they are doing is exploiting people and making money. According to the people that come here and tell us their problems, there is no agency that escapes this.” But it’s not just their wages that are being exploited. The documentary also revealed worryingly dangerous working conditions.
Legally, workers should be protected from pesticide exposure. However, Channel 4 News filmed dozens of workers toiling in the same fields in which pesticides were being sprayed. Producers also spoke to one woman who had previously worked in the fields in Murcia. Despite multiple operations on her sinuses, she can no longer work and is in constant pain. “The cold I feel inside is from the fumes I inhaled while they were fumigating. I find it difficult to speak,” she said. “They spray whilst employees work. All that matters to them is fulfilling their clients’ orders. They do not care.”
When contacted by Channel 4 News, Agroherni outlined its policy, saying: “No pesticides are permitted on farms to be harvested. Workers are forbidden to enter any farm within 24 hours of the application of pesticides. Agroherni's management are not aware of any relevant incidents taking place.”
However, the Channel 4 News’s investigations found otherwise. Indeed, one of the Agroherni workers they spoke to was later rushed to hospital, where the doctor diagnosed him with bronchitis due to inhalation of pesticides. Shockingly, the next day Integra Empleo fired him.
While Tesco, M&S, Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Asda all claim to source their produce responsibly and have signed up to the Global Ethical Trading Initiative, the nature of supply chain risk means they can still partner with companies whose behaviour is unethical.
Jose Antonio Pujante Diekman, a Murcia politician, emphasised that the supermarkets who buy the produce also hold responsibility for what he describes as slave-like farming conditions in the region. “Big supermarkets and food companies are the ones who make the deals with farms for these products so they are the ones responsible for the exploitation” he says.
Integra Empleo denied all allegations and told Channel 4 News that it complies with the law. However, it declined the opportunity to be interviewed on the subject. As a result of the investigation, Agroherni says it has now ceased working with Integra Empleo and is arranging to employ all the agency workers directly.
The British Retail Consortium, which represents the UK supermarkets involved, guaranteed that these supermarkets would be looking into these allegations closely, but highlighted the difficulties of international supply chains, saying:
“Investment in ethical auditing has been a priority for UK supermarkets and they will continue to improve and adapt them to meet future challenges; something we made clear in our clear support for the Modern Slavery Act.
“However, ethical auditing is only one part of the solution to this, which also requires effective day to day management of labour issues by suppliers and clear support from governments, both here and abroad, to enforce basic labour legislation.”
With increasing awareness of their cause and support from politicians and unions, earlier this year workers took to the street to demonstrate against their treatment by the employment agencies. The message on their signs was simple and clear. It said, “I am a person, not a slave”. Let’s hope all businesses take note.