15 Apr 2015

Exploited to put food on our plates: ‘we live like animals’

Washington Correspondent

Surrounded by the fresh food they pick to send to supermarkets, but living in flimsy shacks, workers in Spain tell me how their dreams of better lives are crushed by the grim reality of exploitation.

On the southern coast of Spain, nestled between the resort towns that millions flock to every summer, is a place like no other on earth.

Welcome to El Ejido, 200 miles from Murcia, and a new investigation into the plight of migrants working for different companies across a vast network of plastic greenhouses that is so big you can see it from space.

But what you can’t see are the thousands of people that toil under the polythene sheeting. They’re mostly migrant workers who have come here seeking a better life, many risking their own lives on the way.

Moroccans, Senegalese, Malians. All in search of their European dream. But the reality, for many, is something altogether different.

I arrived in the so-called plastic city amid a deluge of rain – a stark contrast to the usual sun-drenched landscape where temperatures can sometimes soar to 50 degrees. In a greenhouse. Imagine.

Up to 120,000 people work here, producing nearly three million tonnes of fruit and veg every year for export to Britain and across northern Europe.

Some actually live inside this plastic maze. At night, when the security gates are closed, they are locked in.

Fatima came from Morocco eight years ago. She worked in the greenhouses as a picker, but started to develop serious migranes. Now employers don’t want to take her on.

She is trapped and penniless. And without any money she can’t return home to her children. I met her in her “home” – a flimsy shelter cobbled together from wooden crates and plastic sheeting, the rain seeping through, a bare light bulb flickering.

It’s hard to believe anyone could be living like this in Europe in 2015. She tells me: “look at the plight I’m in. water is getting in. I have no electricity. I have not seen my children for nine years.”

“I have no money. I have no work. How can I go and see them?”

For these courgettes to reach England, there are people who have suffered a lot Yousef, El Ejido worker

Majat is stuck there too – distraught at the way her life has turned out, she tells me “we live like animals.”

Their story is echoed by Yousef.

It’s not his real name. He’s hiding his identity using the mask and safety goggles he’s forced to pay for himself for protection against pesticides while working in the greenhouses, because he says: “the boss sprays pesticide when people are working.”

Workers who dare to complain face being blacklisted he alleges: “anyone that doesn’t want to work with the pesticides and poison. The boss writes that person down on a list.”

Read more: What's the real cost of your salad?

He works for a Spanish company that imports vegetables to Europe including to us in the UK.

“For these courgettes to reach England, there are people who have suffered a lot,” he says.

Yousef says conditions in El Ejido do improve – but only briefly – when an English inspection team is due to arrive: “we have toilets, but when inspections take place, it has toilet paper, it has water, it has soap and everything.

“But when the inspection is over, someone comes and takes everything – until the next visit,” he says.

‘No accountability’

Forty thousand farmers grow crops under plastic at El Ejido.

I met Jose, who grows peppers. He says working conditions on his farm are good, but it’s not the same for all: “I admit there are very bad working conditions for the people that work here. More working hours, less pay and no contracts”

And, he adds, the authorities turn a blind eye: “everybody does it. It’s not seen as a bad thing. There is no accountability. There are no inspections. And the government doesn’t care about this, everybody knows it.”

Shattered dreams

In work, or out of work, at El Ejido many regret the choices that brought them here.

Sadie fled war in Mali and made the hazardous journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to improve his lot.

Now he’s up at dawn, leaving the squalid home he shares with eight others, to look for work. Since he arrived three months ago, he’s had just two days of employment. His hopes of a better life are being undermined by lack of money.

He tells me: “I didn’t know about the work conditions in Spain. If I’d have know, I wouldn’t have come.”

We are happy to make clear that the allegations above do not relate to the Agroherni Group (referred to in another report broadcast on April 15).