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Spain: Passing the buck on exploited migrant workers must end, says UN expert

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26 June 2020

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GENEVA (26 June 2020) –  The Government and Spanish companies must immediately improve abysmal conditions for neglected migrant labourers deployed as “essential workers” to pick strawberries during the COVID-19 pandemic while the rest of Spain was under lockdown, a UN expert said today.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, said all authorities are responsible for ensuring that migrant workers are guaranteed conditions, including access to adequate healthcare, that meet international standards.

About 3,000 female migrants from Morocco travel each year to the Spanish city of Huelva during the annual strawberry harvest, where they often work in excess of Spain’s legal limit on working hours and are paid below minimum wage, or sometimes not paid at all.

“Governments tend to blame companies for violations of workers’ rights, and companies in turn tend to see the enforcement of labour rights as the duty of public authorities, not theirs,” De Schutter said. “This habit of passing the buck must stop. Failure by an employer to respect the rights of its employees can never be justified by the failure of State authorities to effectively enforce domestic legislation or to comply with international human rights norms.

“The complete dependence on seasonal migrant workers in the strawberry business of Huelva routinely leads to situations that amount to forced labour, in complete disregard both of international human rights standards and of domestic legislation,” De Schutter said.

Most of the migrants lack safety and protection measures at work and live in overcrowded housing settlements with inadequate access to basic services, including to water, soap and disinfectants – particularly alarming given the COVID-19 health risk.

“The protection of seasonal migrant workers in Huelva has been completely neglected during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the rest of Spain was under lockdown to stem the spread of the virus, thousands of migrant labourers considered ‘essential workers’ were put to work without even basic hygiene measures being taken, without protective materials and sharing tools,” De Schutter said.

“The relevant authorities were alerted but remained silent. And when workers fell sick, their access to healthcare was not guaranteed.”

The expert has been in contact with the Governments of Spain and Morocco and the concerned companies to seek clarifications on these issues. 

The expert’s call has been endorsed by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, Mr. Tomoya Obokata; the Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, Dainius Pūras; the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Balakrishnan Rajagopal;  the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales; the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Léo Heller; and the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Mr. Michael Fakhri

ENDS

The experts:Mr. Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights;Mr. Tomoya Obokata,Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences; Dainius PūrasSpecial Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context,Mr. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; Mr Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation; Mr. Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food

For more information and media requests, please contact Patricia Varela (+41 22 928 9234 / pvarela@ohchr.org)

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org) and John Newland (mediaconsultant2@ohchr.org)

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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