Oussama Assaf stands in a field and cuts vegetables from their stalks. He is working at an organic farm in the Spanish region of Andalusia. It is operated by Cuevas Bio, which supplies among others Denn’s, the German organic supermarket chain. However, it’s highly unlikely that customers of Denn’s in Germany have any idea what sort of conditions Mr. Assaf is working under.
Andalusia’s prime industry is agriculture and the organic sector is booming. It is a business that is fueled by cheap labor. Tens of thousands of migrants from Morocco and other countries flock to Spain hoping, like Mr. Assaf, to build a better life.
Yet Mr. Assaf, who did not want to give his real name, quickly woke up to the grim reality of working in Spain’s agricultural sector.
“If you go out for five minutes to get some air and the boss sees you, then he cuts your wages by an hour.”
“In summer, it’s toughest in the greenhouses,” he explains. He points to the edge of the field where heavy plastic sheets hang over a 200-meter-long support frame. During the summer temperatures inside can soar to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
Amid punishing humidity the men have to cut and harvest plants and pack them into boxes. “If you go out for five minutes to get some air and the boss sees you, then he cuts your wages by an hour.”
There are plenty of stories like this. It seems to counter the organic industry’s message of the respectful harmony of nature and man.
The Germany-based organic producers association Naturland, which certifies Cuevas Bio, says that they always work with fair trade companies. The association made social standards part of its certification process in 2005. They stipulate that workers have to have regular hours, a right to breaks, holidays and overtime pay. The workers should also get at least the minimum wage and have access to labor union representation.
Mr. Assaf has never heard about these standards. “We recently went to our boss Baltasar (Viudez), wanting to talk with him. We haven’t had one single holiday in years. And we wanted to complain,” he said. “He said simply: Do you think the plants will wait until you are finished your holidays to grow?”
Although Mr. Assaf and many of his co-workers have worked for the company for years they have never been given permanent contracts, but instead are constantly presented with new seasonal ones.
“We only get paid for eight hours’ work a day,” Mr. Assaf said. “But we often work more than 10 hours. At peak harvest time that can even be up to 14 hours.” He said that the real hourly wage is then reduced from Spain’s legal minimum of €5.80 ($7.80) to between €3 and €4 an hour. His boss, Mr. Viudez, denied these allegations.
When Naturland was shown the results of Die Zeit’s investigation into conditions at Cuevas Bio, they said in a statement that some workers “as a result of working for the company for some time possibly have gained a right to permanent employment.” They denied it was a systematic problem. They said they had no evidence of unpaid overtime. The workers each sign a list which says how many hours they worked.
However, that doesn’t surprise Mbarka El Goual Maazouzi, who works for the SOC labor union, which represents migrant workers. “The laborers are not going to object,” she said. “They are afraid of losing their jobs.”
Mr. Assaf knows how easy it would be to replace him. There are thousands of migrants in the region who would be only too happy to take his job. Many of those who cannot find work are dependent on the Red Cross for food and live in small shacks with no water or electricity. Mr. Assaf and his co-workers do anything they can to avoid such a fate.
Although there are regular inspections of the farms, it is difficult to check all the farms all the time.
The organization Anti-Slavery International says that the Spanish agricultural industry is the equivalent of state-sanctioned slavery. Mr. Assaf says that he has seen inspectors but only from afar. He and the other laborers speak hardly any Spanish and, anyway, they wouldn’t dare say anything in front of the boss.
Labor activist Ms. Maazouzi says she knows of plenty of cases of exploitation on organic farms. She has been travelling around the region talking to workers and listening to their complaints.
She mentions another case of a female worker on an organic farm which supplies the German organic distributor Landlinie and the Basic organic supermarket chain, with stores in Germany and Austria. The woman became sick and a doctor certified her as unfit to work. However, when she came back to the farm, someone else had been given her job and she was sent home.
“Recently there has been an increase in complaints about organic farms,” Ms. Maazouzi said. Organic food is a booming business. In Germany last year, €7.55 billion worth of organic food and beverages were sold, a 7.2 percent increase on the previous year. And that is set to increase in 2014.
Local producers cannot meet the demand and anyway, many consumers want to have seasonal products like strawberries all year round. As a result supermarkets and distributors are increasingly reliant on international producers. Already half of organic fruit and vegetables sold in Germany come from abroad.
After work Mr. Assaf sits in a small park not far from his house. He looks weary and angry. He’d like to change something about his situation. Maybe work with the labor union to fight for his rights. However, he is scared. He’s been doing this work for years and will be able to bear it for many more years if he has to. And he has so much to lose.
“All I want is to work and get a little respect,” he says and then hesitates. He is ashamed to talk about how much he is humiliated. “But when the boss comes to us he always calls: ‘Hey, come here you monkey!’ or ‘Get working already, you dog!’”