El mar de plástico (the sea of plastic) and working with the Andalusian Workers’ Syndicate
As a community, we wanted to learn more about the local environmental and labour justice struggle surrounding el mar de plástico (the sea of plastic), referring to the agricultural system in/around Almería which results in a literal sea of greenhouses as far as the eye can see.
This educational activity consisted of two parts:
Within the first week, we were informing ourselves about the sea of plastic – a local justice struggle on a human and environmental level in the region Almería where Sunseed is based. The greenhouses in Almería, referred to as el mar de plástico (the sea of plastic), supply between 40-50% of all fruits and vegetables within the EU which equals 3.5 million tonnes of food annually. This comes with several environmental and human rights issues, such as plastic pollution, groundwater depletion, groundwater and soil pollution due to chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and the exploitation of (undocumented) migrant workers due to bad working conditions and low payment, qualifying as a slave labour conditions.
The week after, we went to El Ejido to talk to a representative from the Andalusian Workers Syndicate (SAT) who is supporting migrants in their struggle for humane working conditions. The objective of the syndicate is to stop exploitation of one human by another by trying to at least enforce the workers’ rights that are already there (but unfortunately don’t go far enough). Most greenhouses are close to the Almerían municipality of El Ejido.
Part 1: Info session within Sunseed
To gain a common level of understanding regarding the topic, we watched the following mini documentaries:
> Inside Europe’s BLACK HOLE: Almería ‘s Sea of Plastic – YouTube
> 🍅 Veggiespiracy 🥦 Plastic Sea Almería | 40.000 hectares of greenhouses | Louis De Jaeger – YouTube
After that we shared reflections about this topic in smaller groups and brainstormed questions we wanted to ask our contact the following week when going to El Ejido. We came up with questions regarding the following topics:
- the worker’s situation in the greenhouses;
- the production system and ownership of the greenhouses;
- the legal situation surrounding this form of human and environmental exploitation;
- resistance towards this exploitation;
- water scarcity due to the industrialised food production in the greenhouses;
- the role of the Andalusian Workers Syndicate (SAT);
- the meaning of the greenhouses for Spain;
- and finally the potential future of the greenhouses.
Part 2: Visiting SAT in El Ejido
Introduction of our SAT contact person
I am a rural (campesino) worker doing a regular job and besides that I also work for this syndicate outside of my working hours. I go as a representative for Almería to different meetings for immigrant workers, telling what happens in Almería to the outside world.
I am also part of another group called “Campesino”, that is a collective group of different syndicates that have a lot of meetings and often go to Brussels.
What do you do within the syndicate?
Generally speaking, confront capitalism. We organise demonstrations and strikes. We try to help workers with their rights. I also work as Treasurer here.
How can you as a person and SAT in general help greenhouse workers?
We listen to the workers’ needs and problems and try to figure out how we can push the needs as a group. We try to find ways to pressure companies and the capitalistic system as a whole.
Generally speaking, what are the needs of the greenhouse workers?
The employers are often not following the law and pay less money than they should. They often do not pay enough, for extra hours and they do not give holidays. There is also sexual harassment happening, mostly towards women. Other problems are that many do not speak Spanish so we also offer Spanish lessons here.
Have you been taking greenhouse companies to court?
Yes a lot! Thanks to our fight, companies now have to pay extra hours and vacations. There is now more control from the government and inspections are conducted.
What is an example of success that SAT had?
There are a lot of cases where SAT helped workers to receive their payments when employers refused to pay. For instance, there is the case of this worker who only earned 20 euros per day while working 14 hours per day from Monday to Sunday. He heard about the syndicate from a Moroccan friend and then SAT took this case to court and he was awarded 20.000 euros and he’s now in the process of getting that. So that is a success. But it’s also a success that many of the businesses here know about SAT. SAT has the recognition of fighting for the workers and that’s really important. It means the employers know that they can’t just do whatever they want, because they are being watched. Another fight I consider a success was attending a strike that was not organised by SAT but by other bigger syndicates (https://www.eldiario.es/andalucia/Almería /envasadoras-manipulado-Almería -conciliacion-huelga_1_6375400.html). SAT is quite small but when it came to the moment of getting to the streets, SAT was the first to show up there.
How does SAT get funding?
Monetary aid mostly comes from Brussels, from the left wing parties and organisations. Also the yearly fee we get from workers covers some costs. SAT is one of the smallest syndicates in the area, getting funded by different programs but we still don’t have enough people to do all the work that would need to be done. Applying for more funding, e.g. from the EU, requires a lot of work, as granting institutions demand detailed documentation of SATs work. So this is difficult to achieve when already being understaffed.
Do you have to register as a member to get help from SAT?
No, we try to help everyone and to listen to their needs. To get legal help though, you have to register so you can get a lawyer from us.
How do you register as a SAT member?
You can only give your name. You can but do not have to show your passport or legal papers. And then you have to pay the yearly fee of 65 euros – it is the cheapest syndicate I know of.
How many members are registered?
It is hard to say as there are a lot of transient people from Africa that come and go. Many registered but then later we never heard from them again. But I would say about 4.000 people that are registered. Fixed members (affiliates) though I would say over 600 people.
How many greenhouse workers are there in this region at the moment?
It is hard to say as many are not registered, they have no papers and are “illegal” immigrants. Most of them also do not know about their rights. But roughly speaking about 300,000 workers in the province of Almería .
What are the demographics of the greenhouse workers?
The workers are mostly men. They’re trying to make a better life for their families who are back home. They’re mainly from Algeria and Morocco. More are beginning to come from Sub-saharan countries now.
How can the undocumented/”illegal” workers get their needs met/get help?
We give counselling to them and try to legalise their status with an “Arriago” working visa. We try to get them legal papers that show that they live and work permanently in Spain. After being in Spain for 2-3 years you can apply for a working and resident permit. It is not easy though to get this permit, a series of requirements have to be met.
Do you have examples of companies using “illegal” workers?
On paper all looks good, but reality tells a different story, many are “illegal”. When we win a trial against companies, they have to admit they have used “illegal” workers. Most of the companies have got used to thinking that they can get away with this as there are so many “illegal” immigrants coming through all the time and it is easy to take advantage of them.
What is at the root of the exploitation of workers?
The exploitation of workers in this sector is caused by big supermarket chains who put a lot of pressure on the farmers. They just don’t buy the tomatoes for the price the farmers would decide on. And following that a lot of price dumping is happening. The Situation in El Ejido is a structural issue, which needs to be solved somewhere else. El Ejido is just one example of what is created by capitalism. If the workers would get paid more fairly, and if the farmers would invest more in better work and food conditions in general, the prices of the exported products would increase. That would have a direct effect on the prices we pay in the supermarkets. And this could trigger an enormous inflation…
How do greenhouse workers find out about SAT?
Mostly they hear about us through other workers, through word of mouth. We also get recognition with our demonstrations, strikes and movement rallies. Some may also see, hear or read about our victories in trials we won against companies. Some may hear about us in the media and news.
SAT is also active in St. Isidro, a region in the north of El Ejido characterised by its greenhouses. Here the structure of workers’ rights is better organised. Just the fact that the workers know more about the existence of SAT makes it easier to help and to be active. Also, workers bring a more politically-driven energy and attitude to the table which also makes it easier to get together and achieve progress.
Are the greenhouse inspections you mentioned only for companies that employ workers affiliated with SAT?
No, there are regular inspections of fieldworkers and also other parts of the company, to see if the requirements are met. This is not linked to SAT membership.
Is it the EU or the Spanish government doing the inspections?
The EU itself doesn’t really help, it is the Spanish government. It’s more on a country to country basis.
Who owns the greenhouses?
They began as small single owner businesses and cooperatives, then big companies got interested. It was better organised before. Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto control the seeds used now, so it’s Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Also foreign companies from the Netherlands, Germany and France are buying land to cultivate now. These big companies also denounce and serve lawsuits to smaller companies if they use non-GMO seeds. They control the laws and own the market. They can make laws which suit them and convince smaller growers they’ll get a better yield with GMOs. The suppliers have a series of requirements they have to meet to sell to supermarkets. They tell them what to do if there’s a plague or the plants get ill. You have to buy their products so you enter into their game and so they make you consume their products for life. If you don’t play their game, you don’t play!
Is there anyone or any organisation here in the area interested in fighting against GMO? And are they getting any closer at getting their interest met?
There are some groups in Spain like Greenpeace, there might be more. The fact is that as a producer, as a farmer, you need a plague resistant plant in order to make money. Otherwise, your whole crops will die and you’ll get no benefit from that, you’ll lose money. Companies like Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto are tweaking and engineering this in order to make resistant plants and most of the time you will choose that because it’s a guarantee that you’re not going to lose money. To try to do the old fashioned organic way is just too risky for a farmer betting all his livelihood on getting a good crop. Also not everyone can “afford” to buy ecologically and as farmers have been using pesticides for years, it takes a big cultural shift to change this. The EU demands a certain quality of products but sometimes produce from Morocco slips in which has more chemicals in it and is cheaper.
Do you think that Spain will eventually get laws that prohibit farmers from using their own seeds so that they will only be able to get seeds from private companies?
What is happening here in Almería , Andalucia and Spain in general, is the fault of the pressure that is coming from the top of big supermarket chains that are pressing down from the top, demanding cheap food. There are farmers in small villages somewhere in Spain who do have their own seeds and crops, but the problem is that they’re not able to sell to the mass market like supermarket chains. All these stores that are selling according to EU regulations need traceability to the source, so the only way these farmers can sell their stuff is by local farmers markets which are very small scale. Or they already sell to specific restaurants in the area.
What happens with products from the greenhouses that cannot be sold?
The huerta de europa products sometimes get thrown away if they aren’t “perfect”. Sometimes the non-perfect products get pickled. Islamic and feminist groups also help the workers and especially the Islamic groups appeal to the Moroccan workers. SAT’s focus of supporting workers who have already been in Spain for quite some time to get them a permit to “legally” stay, is quite pioneering. The company I work for next to SAT is also taking part in an experiment that allows workers to take produce home if it’s surplus or not fit for sale.
Who are the foremans in the greenhouses?
The foremans are usually Spanish, occasionally Romanian and they are very difficult to deal with. They abuse their power and lie. They are chivatos and negreros, the right hand men of the company owners and they think they’re above the law. They’re sometimes even worse than their own bosses/greenhouse owners.They are usually the main enemy because they are the ones who are stalling the fights. They are usually the ones who know things first because they’re the ones on the ground. The boss might go around every 3 or 4 hours, but the foremans are the ones working in the fields and sometimes they lie, and I have seen very unfair things happen because they’re friends with the bosses and the bosses will believe them without any proof. They’re traitors.
How can Sunseed support the syndicate?
It’s basically about being more people for collective actions. When there are events we organise, then it’s good to have more people showing up with banners and making noise. That might do more damage to the business than a single legal action that the greenhouse owners can more easily hide. And if people on the streets can see this collective action then it has a lot of impact but also the fighting is nice. For people who are young, getting involved in these types of actions is very gratifying. Once I was hit by someone at a protest because I was protesting against the exploitation of this worker we already talked about (who was working from Monday to Sunday every week 14 hours per day while earning 20 euros per day). I’m not scared of going to actions like this and I can only laugh at the employer who is doing these horrible things to this worker and trying to scare me off with this act of violence. It’s important to get involved in these actions that have such practical outcomes. Since there are also illegal practices going on close to Sunseed, e.g. illegal wells for olive plantations. Sunseed could also take actions like this and the syndicate will be there to support these actions.
What is the status quo of environmental movements in Spain/this area?
Movements of fighting for anything in general came way later to Spain than in other countries in Europe like France. And activism is arriving in Spain slowly, but not necessarily in a place like El Ejido, a little town, which is full of racism and sexism and generally also more reactionary.
What’s the average age of people showing up to actions or demonstrations also regarding climate change?
I am the youngest worker in the syndicate. What could be the reason for that is that young people are less engaged in this topic. Maybe because on the left, there are also some horrible people who don’t change anything for the better and that we might need new associations to get real change. Generally, it seems like the majority of the people here in Almería are not aware of the climate crises and rather want to make a lot of money.