Investigation uncovers plight of migrant workers who live in appalling conditions and are paid half of legal minimum wage.
The exploitation of tens of thousands of migrants used to grow salad vegetables for British supermarkets has been uncovered by a Guardian investigation into the €2bn-a-year (£1.6bn) hothouse industry in southern Spain.
Charities working with illegal workers during this year's harvest claim the abuses meet the UN's official definition of modern-day slavery, with some workers having their pay withheld for complaining. Conditions appear to have deteriorated further as the collapse of the Spanish property boom has driven thousands of migrants from construction to horticulture to look for work.
The Guardian's findings include:
• Migrant workers from Africa living in shacks made of old boxes and plastic sheeting, without sanitation or access to drinking water.
• Wages that are routinely less than half the legal minimum wage.
• Workers without papers being told they will be reported to the police if they complain.
• Allegations of segregation enforced by police harassment when African workers stray outside the hothouse areas into tourist areas.
The situation of migrants working in the tomato, pepper, cucumber and courgette farms of Almeria is so desperate that the Red Cross has been handing out free food to thousands of them. Its local co-ordinator described conditions as "inhuman". Anti-Slavery International said the Guardian's evidence was "deeply disturbing", and raised the "spectre of de facto state sanctioning of slavery in 21st century Europe".
Mohammed's story is typical of thousands of Africans working under the sweltering heat of plastic greenhouses.
He arrived illegally in southern Spain from Morocco in 2004 to work in the hothouses, having paid €1,000 to smugglers to bring him in a fishing boat. He said back then he could earn €30 for an eight-hour day. Now he's lucky to get €20 a day.
The legal minimum wage for a day's work is currently more than €44, but the economic crisis has created a newly enlarged surplus of migrants desperate for work, enabling farmers to slash wages.
Mohammed's home is a shack in the hothouse area that runs into the tourist town of Roquetas de Mar on the Costa del Sol. It is crudely knocked together from the wooden pallets used to transport the crops and covered with a layer of old agricultural plastic. There is no drinking water or sanitation.
There are 100 or so shacks like this next to Mohammed's. Jobs are sporadic, and come not with contracts but by the day or even by the hour. Sometimes, when he and his compatriots have been without work for weeks, there is no food, unless the Red Cross makes one of its food parcel deliveries. "We live like animals scavenging. No work, no money, no food," he said.
Jawara came from Gambia in 2008 with 85 others who were packed like cargo on a small fishing boat. He felt lucky to have survived the trauma of the journey; some of those with him drowned or died on the boat. Released from detention after 40 days to go and find work, he now lives with 10 others from Sub-Saharan Africa in an abandoned farm building among the hothouses near the Almerian market town San Isidro.
The men sleep in the part that still has the semblance of a roof. They are crammed into three small rooms that are sour with the smell of dampness and stale food, the walls blackened by the camping stove they use to cook. The bathroom is the outbuilding next door, its roof long gone and its bricks reduced to rubble. The sitting room is a salvaged sofa leaning against broken walls. There is no sanitation here either and the men live in between the farm jobs they find on the tomato crop, charity handouts and Red Cross parcels.
Jawara came to San Isidroto to join his brother and had just three months of reunion with him before his brother died from kidney problems. Without papers, they had been too frightened to go to the doctor and they couldn't afford medicines. His father died too while he has been away. Like many of those we interviewed Jawerea spoke of his shame at the conditions, the racism he encountered everywhere and how little they are now paid. He did not want to be filmed in case his family back home saw how he lived.
Sang, also from Gambia, considers himself relatively well off sharing an abandoned farmhouse with about 40 others from west Africa. A local farmer rents it to them illegally, as although it has a roof and electricity, it has no running water.
In addition to rent, the migrants must pay €600 a month to have a tanker deliver water to an old borehole in the yard. Sang, who has been supporting about 30 family members in Gambia with his wages, has also been reduced to working a few hours at a time on the salad harvest in the past year, as the recession hit.
Almeria used to be Spain's poorest region but the boom in horticulture since the late 1980s has helped transform the area, which sits just behind the Costa del Sol. Although British holidaymakers rarely see it, less than a mile from the tourist hotels on the beach a vast industrial landscape of plastic hothouses has taken over 400 square km of the coastal plain.
The trade in vegetables grown in the region meets UK demand for all year-round fresh salad. It is worth €2bn a year to the Spanish economy, according to José Ángel Aznar, professor of applied economics at the university of Almeria. Nearly all the leading retailers across northern Europe, including British supermarkets, source salad crops from the region when their own season ends. They buy at auction from the co-operatives to which the farmers belong.
But the boom has only been possible thanks to migrants. The hothouses have needed a large supply of cheap labour that can be turned on and off at a moment's notice. The work is irregular and arduous, and with temperatures reaching 40C-45C is unattractive to the local population. So it has sucked in thousands of illegal workers, first from Morocco, then from eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
Estimates of the total number working in the hothouses vary, but Juan Carlos Checa, researcher in social anthropology at the university, put the number of migrant workers in April 2010 at 80,000-90,000.
Spitou Mendy, who was himself an illegal migrant from Senegal until he gained his papers in an amnesty, now helps run Sindicato de Obreros del Campo (SOC), a small union for migrants. He thinks the numbers have swollen to more than 100,000 due to the recession.
The Spanish government allows those who can prove they have worked for more than three years to apply to become regularised and many have done so, but tens of thousands are still in Almeria illegally, making them easy to exploit. Conditions that were already appalling have deteriorated further in the past two years, according to Mendy.
Farmers argue that the supermarkets have squeezed their margins even harder during the downturn, while costs for fuel and fertiliser have gone up. They have no choice but to cut wages, which is the one element of their production costs they can control. Farmers trying to employ people legally and at the proper rate find it hard to compete or make a profit.
In Mendy's eyes the conditions are slavery. "You don't find the sons of Spain in the hothouses, only the blacks and people from former colonies," he says. "The farmers only want an unqualified, malleable workforce, which costs absolutely nothing. Only one part of the business is benefiting from this. It's the big agribusiness that wins. It's the capitalists that win. And humanity is killed that way. This is slavery in Europe. At the door to Europe, there is slavery as if we were in the 16th century."
Cherif, who used to be a teacher of French and German in Senegal but now supports two children on what he earns picking tomatoes a few days a month, has found farmers only too happy to take advantage of illegal workers. "You have to shut your mouth about the conditions. It's very, very hot; there's no water to drink and it's back-breaking. They pay me only €20-€25 a day and I don't feel free. The police watch me if I go to the wrong places."
Like many we spoke to, Cherif had experience of farmers refusing to pay for work that had been done. "One farmer didn't want to pay me and another African. He owed me €200. The other man had a fight with him and got his money but I didn't want to fight. So I walked to his house every day for two months until he gave it to me, but even then he shortchanged me by €5."
Tensions between migrants and local communities have been growing in recent months. SOC fears a repeat of the violence and rioting that occurred in 2000, in the horticultural town of El Ejido. Mendy explained that they had seen the warning signs in San Isidro last October when a farmer was murdered in his hothouse store and locals immediately pointed the finger at migrants. Thousands protested in the streets following his funeral, brandishing racist placards picturing Africans as black sheep and saying: "Immigrants: behave or get out". It later transpired that the police were investigating the farmer's links to organised crime.
Most of the time the two communities are completely segregated, however. The only black people seen in tourist areas are a few hawkers selling trinkets on the beaches, while Africans and Moroccans live hidden away in slums among the hothouses. They come into the agricultural towns at daybreak to queue by main roads for casual work, but are expected to melt away afterwards. Several of those we interviewed described being harassed by police if they strayed outside the hothouse areas at other times.
Sister Purification, or Puri, as she is known, is one of four Catholic nuns from the order of the Merciful Sisters of Charity who live in San Isidro. She recalled how the first black Africans had come to the town in 2002.
The detention centres in the Canaries that received migrants arriving illegally in boats from Africa were full. In order to process new arrivals, the Spanish authorities began flying those already there out to mainland airports to disperse them to areas where labour was needed. They hired a coach to take about 30 Africans from Madrid airport to the centre of San Isidro, where the driver was instructed to open the doors in Plaza Colonización, the main square, and simply release them. "That was the first time black people came here.
"The government gave them absolutely nothing; no money, no papers, nothing, just told them, off you go. No one here knew they were coming. The local authorities washed their hands of them. The people in the town didn't want anything to do with them. We had no idea what to do," Puri explained.
In the end, the nuns took the African men to a disused hothouse. Others began arriving and started building cardboard hovels under its dilapidated structure, until more than 300 people were living there in a makeshift slum without sanitation. "The conditions were terrible, horrible, not human," Puri recalled.
As more and more people came, the nuns began to worry about health problems. They found TB, Aids and hepatitis among the migrants, but knew they couldn't get proper medical help. They began taking those who were ill to abandoned farmhouses nearby to isolate them from the rest. "We didn't have the means to provide more. The government was doing next to nothing."
Then in September 2005 a huge fire broke out. Hundreds of Africans were driven out of the slum as the plastic burned. The fire brigade and police arrived, but once the fire was out they just left again and refused to help, according to Puri.
The nuns used their own small cars to begin distributing about 300 plus men, to places they knew migrants were already sheltering in the area – in old farm buildings and underground wells. But by 2am, there were still 120 men with nowhere to go and it was decided that they should sleep in the main square, with the nuns accompanying them for solidarity. "We were there three days. The town did nothing. The government did nothing. I was crying with rage, with impotence and with indignation," says Puri.
Today the nuns run a feeding centre where they hand out food and clothes to migrants. They have more than 4,000 recipients registered on their computer in this one small agricultural community of 7,000 inhabitants alone.
"There have been five deaths of migrants in the last year here from traffic accidents at night," Puri added. "About 18 months ago an African worker died in one of the hothouses – he had fallen into the water tank and couldn't get out. There was no punishment for the farmer, no police questions," Puri told us. "I am very conscious what we are doing is not a real solution. But they know that at least if they are sick or desperate, we are here to hold their hand."
The conditions are not just confined to Almeria. As the olive harvest was about to begin just before last Christmas in the region of Jaén, thousands of migrants moved there desperately trying to find work. With no money and no shelter, most were being fed once a day at a centre run by the Red Cross. They were allowed to stay at the centre for three days but then had to leave. Most were sleeping rough. Those with papers could apply for a free bus pass at the Red Cross centre each morning to get themselves to the olive groves to tout for work.
The Red Cross in Jaen did not return our calls but its co-ordinator in Almeria, Francisco Vicente, said it estimates that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 homeless migrants in his province alone, of which some 5,000 live in abandoned houses and shacks without running water or electricity. "These are more 'established' communities, which the Red Cross can at least reach. But the others are spread throughout town, sleeping near bank cash machines, or just on the streets. This is not human," he added.
Mendy told us there was a conspiracy of silence about the conditions. "Everyone knows this system exists, this is untamed neoliberalism. But people have closed their ears to it."
Vincente agreed: "This is being hidden, people are not interested in making this public. I am not referring to only politicians. Sometimes it's the society itself – the people – who don't stand up," he told us.
The Spanish government's ministry of interior was asked for comment but failed to respond.
Anti-Slavery International's director, Aidan McQuade, said: "The evidence obtained by the Guardian suggests we could be seeing the emergence of a new form of slavery, which is deeply disturbing.
"The fact that the Spanish authorities have moved irregular migrants to areas of the country where labour is needed and also where migrant workers are routinely paid half the legal minimum wage and threatened with deportation for complaining about their working conditions, establishes a prima facie case of official collusion in the trafficking of migrant workers to the agricultural farms of southern Spain.
"This raises the spectre of de facto state sanctioning of slavery in 21st century Europe."