Nick Kightley, ETI’s Food, Fishing and Farming Lead, has been reading a Guardian article on the alleged rape and abuse of Moroccan women workers in the strawberry farms of Southern Spain. It’s an issue ETI has been following for some time.
Sexual abuse in the workplace is totally unacceptable and must always be investigated, dealt with and prosecuted.
As I understand it, the Guardian article raises concerns from last year. Even the year before. So, it’s important to acknowledge that these are older rather than newer stories.
At the time, both the allegations and consequent treatment of the women workers were widely covered in the Moroccan and Spanish media.
ETI members assured us that they had followed up with their suppliers. As well as with the Ethical Trade Forum in Spain. And that the story was being investigated.
Yet, I understand that this does not necessarily reassure.
Not all companies buying fresh fruit and salad vegetables from Southern Spain are members of ETI. I also know that even ETI members can struggle to exert as much positive influence over local employment practices as they’d like.
Companies need verifiable facts
Companies need verifiable facts and contacts if they are to take action around reports of abuse and poor practice. Unfortunately, media reports often need to restrict those same facts and the names of the workers involved to protect identities.
This can constrain company investigations and consequently remedy.
That being said, having spoken to some of those closer to the story than myself, the impression I have been given is of slow but steady progress by the industry.
While underlying behaviour change is still patchy, improved employment practices are being adopted.
We are seeing the introduction of more training on good practices, which is going well, and on the need for support to migrant workers. We are also seeing better grievance mechanisms and communication channels for those workers.
This provides some reassurance that the level of risk is now starting to be managed. Importantly, the environment for migrant workers – in particular to be respected, protected and listened to – is being built up.
But, I am still left with an impression of a relatively conservative and insular industry. It also appears to be an industry that struggles to come to terms with what a modern-day worker-management relationship should look like.
Respect and protect workers
Traditional working practices need to meet modern-day standards for respect and the protection of workers. If they don’t, they will and should die out.
ETI supports progressive management practices. Especially practices that empower workers to speak up when they see or experience something wrong.
Managers must be properly equipped to understand how to respond positively to the contribution that worker insights offer to a business. They should view whistleblowers in particular as friends not enemies.
Incidentally, I am pleased to see that whistleblowers across the European Union have just won greater protection under landmark legislation aimed at encouraging reports of wrongdoing. It means they are protected from being punished, sacked, demoted or sued.
Local and international action
Nevertheless, the Guardian story should act as a shot across the bows of all companies trading in the region. They must ensure that everything possible is being done to ensure safe working conditions for migrant workers in their supply chains in Southern Spain.
It’s why I see the active participation of the Spain Ethical Trade Forum as a critical part of due diligence – encouraging local responsibility and action for change. [Editor: in 2017 ETI produced member-only guidance on business and human rights due diligence in Spanish agriculture.]
After all, Spain is hugely important as a source of supply for UK supermarkets among others.
And let me reiterate, it is deplorable that the sexual abuse and exploitation of workers should be happening in our food supply chains (or indeed anywhere).
Meanwhile, as the Guardian states, this is the beginning of a new agricultural season.
Companies have been warned. Not only is the media watching, but the world of work is changing. Companies must change with it.