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.