The Plastic sea in Almeria (Spain)

450 square kilometers of plastic foil cover the bottom of the Spanish province Almería. Several tons of greenhouse vegetables and fruits are produced there annually, more than half for the single European market. The desert-like, Mediterranean and dry climate favors the cultivation of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and zucchinis, especially during the winter months. But the "economic miracle" of Almería is only possible because of exploitation of cheap manpower without rights. The tourists may disturb the appearance of the greenhouses, but the human misery behind the plastic foils remains secret.

As a project of the Consumer Information of Upper Austria (in cooperation with the Austrian Trade Unions) a group of 16 people organized an educational journey to El Ejido/Almería in May 2011 to get some impressions about the working and living conditions of the migrant greenhouse workers.

The great hope „Europe“

About 100.000 migrants, who have come with great expectations and hopes for a better life in Europe, work under degrading conditions in the so called “invernaderos”, the greenhouses of Almería. Most of them are from Morocco and other countries of the Maghreb, the Sub-Saharan countries, Latin America and even Eastern Europe. Many come by boats to Spain overnight. Others already buy themselves a contract of employment in their origin country for several thousand euros, which they have to repay. Over the years facilitator gangs have formed, which hide people for money in trucks and cart them to Europe without water, in the dark and confined spaces.

Is there work today?

Fixed contracts that guarantee employment during the whole season are rare. Many workers try every day to find a job by going to the farmers and asking for work for this day. Others offer their work force in well-known streets in the area of El Ejido, Almeria and San Isidro / Nijar early in the morning. The farmers or so called "patrones", come with small buses and trucks and seek out their day-laborers. The selection is based on age, size and appearance, as in a cattle market.

Harvesters in the greenhouses of Almería

In the „invernaderos“ mainly men are employed. Women frequently work in packing stations, as nursing staff or home help. Many women end up in prostitution out of desperation and earn their living from sex work. An estimated 80 percent of prostitutes in Spain are immigrants aged 20 to 35 years.

Work of agony

Especially in the warm spring and summer months, the temperature under the plastic foils rise up to 50 degrees and make the hard physical work a misery. Breaks are rare and toilets are not to be found around the greenhouses. Often workers have to provide piecework. Although they are employed under contract, for example for 6.5 hours, they must provide a certain number of boxes of vegetables per day. If their row has a low density of vegetables, it can hardly be done in the pretended time.

Collective Agreement will be ignored

Corresponding to the collective bargaining agreement workers should earn a wage of 44 euros per day. Workers told us that they actually earn between 33 and 36 euros, some only 20 euros per day. According to the collective bargaining agreement entrepreneurs are bound to register their workers in a social insurance system, if they work more than 180 days per year. To save these costs workers are employed shorter or not employed on paper. Wages are sometimes not paid for months. To complain or organize resistance dare only few, because employers often threaten to report to the police.

Without papers - without rights

Many of the agricultural workers live in Spain without a work or residence authorization. A residence authorization is dependent on whether you were registered in Spain during a year or not. Also sufficient financial resources, for example from relatives can lead to obtain a residence permit.

Slum dwellings between the greenhouses

Most workers cannot afford an apartment because of the low income and the high rents in Spain. So they have to build communities between the greenhouses, called “chabolas”. These barracks are made out of old pallets, paperboards and plastic waste and people live their under degrading conditions. Sanitary facilities are not to be found far and wide. Quite often there is a fire in the densely built chabolas because power lines were not installed correctly.

Racialists and foreigner enemies

The situation between the Spaniards and the migrants is tense. The natives even fight with a high unemployment rate due to the world economic crisis and often blame the migrants for their problems. Racist riots are not unusual. Actually hardly any of the natives work in the greenhouses of Almería. 99 percent of workers in the "invernaderos" are immigrants.

The intensive farming damages the environment

Although they changed from a large-scale irrigation to droplet irrigation in the greenhouses, water scarcity is one of the ecological problems in the region among the usage of pesticides, leaching of soils and tons of plastic waste.
The use of pesticides will be reduced also in the conventional agriculture according to statements of civil servers and farmers. Instead of spraying agents - so the official version – they try to use beneficial organisms to control pests. Some workers, however, told us that they still use pesticides in the greenhouses and they do not always have protective suits. Also local aid organizations told of diseases, which were probably caused by pesticides.
They also try to recycle more and more the plastic waste, but piles of rubbish pile up around the greenhouses and the chabolas.

Exploitation due to pricing pressure

As a reason for the bad payment of the greenhouse workers farmers argue with the bad purchasing price. Farmers receive between 5 and 15 cents for a kilo of tomatoes during April and May. The operation of one hectare greenhouse costs between 30.000 and 40.000 euros.  Especially smaller producers have to struggle to produce at least break-even. In Austrian supermarkets you pay about 5 to 8 euros for a kilo of tomatoes during the winter months. The difference stays on track. Lots of the fruits and vegetables spoil and supermarkets have to calculate this loss into their profit-margins. Probably most profit gains the functional intermediary.

Organic farming

Up to now only a small part of about 5 percent of the fruit and vegetable production is cultivated in biological way. The demand for organically grown vegetables increases as well in Spain. But biological farming doesn’t imply automatically the compliance with social standards. It doesn’t exist a label for fruits and vegetables, which implies the compliance of minimum standards concerning collective bargaining provisions and ecological and social standards.

Consumers take responsibility

The exploitation of labor is the basis of the method of production like in Almeria. But a boycott of Spanish fruits and vegetables is not a solution. Consumers should be aware of the situation and put pressure on the supermarkets. Consumers should also think about their own nutrition seriously. Do we actually need the full range of fruits and vegetables 12 months a year or should we consider the seasonality of products?