The Rotten Treatment of Europe’s Fruit and Vegetable Workers

6 November 2012

On 6 November 2012, companies and other stakeholders in the food industry will be gathering in Madrid, Spain for the GlobalG.A.P. Summit to discuss key issues impacting agricultural production. GlobalG.A.P. is an organisation that sets voluntary standards for certification of agricultural products and practices.

Fairfood International will be attending this event. In the run up to it we are highlighting that there are still several social and labour rights issues linked to fresh fruit and vegetable production across Europe that we hope to bring to the agenda.

Over the past few years, numerous reports have documented severe labour rights violations in the European fresh produce sector. In 2011, an Ecologist investigation revealed exploitative conditions facing workers picking tomatoes in Southern Italy. This included 14 hour working days, harsh and abusive working conditions, violence and intimidation, unsanitary living conditions and poor wages with excessive and unclear deductions. In fact, the living and working conditions were so poor that Médecins Sans Frontières has begun providing healthcare and describes conditions as ‘far from enough to meet their basic needs’. Most of these workers are immigrants who are already in precarious positions without the bargaining power to demand better conditions.

There have also been numerous similar cases in the UK. A report released earlier this year identified forced labour practices in the UK food industry. Examples included conditions such as precariousness and fear, withholding wages, paying below the national minimum wage, psychological harm, excessive working hours, inadequate accommodation and confinement to the workplace.

More in the vicinity of the Summit, in Southern Spain, a human rights report earlier this year investigated working conditions on strawberry farms in the Spanish province of Huelva. The report found that the workers are largely female immigrants. These workers are recruited based on gendered and discriminatory hiring criteria, are not guaranteed a minimum income and are not unionised due to the seasonal nature of their work. Their accommodation conditions are often substandard and at times their passports are confiscated, preventing free movement.

These cases are by no means unique and mirror exploitative and back-breaking conditions facing many workers harvesting tomatoes, berries, oranges, lemons, lettuce and other fruits and vegetables in fields and greenhouses across Europe.

Of course, all of the conditions described above breach ILO conventions and local legislation – and yet the problems persist across Europe.

Representatives from Fairfood International will be present at the upcoming Summit and we hope to learn more about the industry’s perspective and gain insight into their approach to addressing these issues. Such a gathering is an opportune moment to engage on this topic. It is clearly an underlying structural issue in the agricultural sector with deeper economic causes, rather than simply a few rogue companies with poor track records.

There is an urgent need for an industry wide effort to be more transparent and accountable with regards to the treatment of workers, working and living conditions, contracts and wages as well as a commitment to more effective and insightful social auditing. While it is easy to shift the blame down the supply chain and claim ignorance of the issue, it is time we move away from that approach and deal with the rotten elements of Europe’s fruit and vegetable production.

Do you have any questions you would like us to ask these companies? Let us know in the comments and we will do our best to address your concerns while we are at the summit.