| 26 maart 2011

Pact of silence (short international version)

Press release

‘Slavery’ in Spanish vegetable culture

Dutch supermarkets insufficiently sustainable

In South-East Spain thousands of illegal immigrants work in vegetable greenhouses. They live in slums and are underpaid. Last year the Netherlands imported 450 million euros worth of vegetables from this area. Dutch supermarkets are aware of the situation and cannot guarantee that the Spanish vegetables they sell were sustainably grown. “It is simply impossible to put a supermarket inspector on every grower’s greenhouse”, says a spokesperson for the Dutch Food Retail Association, the supermarket trade association.

Dutch supermarkets promise their consumers to focus on sustainability. To that end they signed the “BSCI” Code of Conduct. The code sets requirements for working conditions at suppliers, such as payment of minimum wages. BSCI, the organisation that drew up the code and monitors compliance, does not inspect the Spanish vegetable greenhouses. The Brussels-based organisation does not consider Spain to be a risk country, although it is aware of the local situation. This is shown by the documentary “Pact van de stilte” (Pact of Silence) by the investigative journalism television programme KRO Reporter on Saturday, 26 March.

The KRO Reporter documentary shows that thousands, mainly African, immigrants without papers live in the area around Almeria in South-East Spain. It shows how they live in slums between vegetable greenhouses built from plastic, and how they are exploited by vegetable growers. They do not get any contracts, but are put to work arbitrarily at wages far below minimum. Based on the findings of KRO Reporter, A. McQuade, Chairman of Anti-Slavery International in London, says: “Two hundred years ago whips were used to keep slaves under control, today it’s the immigration law.”

BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative) in Brussels, of which the Dutch supermarkets are paying members, is aware of the miserable situation in South Spain. According to BSCI Director J. Eggert, his organisation has urged the European Commission and the Spanish government  for quite some time to tackle these abuses but, so far, to no avail. So the Dutch supermarkets are aware of the situation. In Reporter, Eggert says that he brought it to their attention: “We urge our members to put pressure on the Spanish authorities.”

The situation around Almeria has been like this for years. The SOC, a local trade union, claims a role in inspections of the working conditions in the vegetable greenhouses. According to a spokesperson, political and economic interests are still in the way of an efficient approach. “If the supermarkets want to represent to their consumers that their products are sustainable, they will have to start guaranteeing fair, stable prices to the vegetable growers.”

J.Eggert of BSCI in Brussels confirms this: “Not everyone is tackling the problems, not everyone wants to. The prices certainly play a role. Businesses want to sell their vegetables at as low a price as possible. And, of course, this situation guarantees lower costs than when they pay minimum wages.”

Supermarket consultant Gerard Rutte says in Reporter: “Looking at this kind of situation, the supermarket executives need to start thinking really hard about the effect that this may have on their image. You may be expensive and say you are sustainable, but putting this kind of product on your shelves is an outrage and a huge threat to your image.”

The report can be watched here: