Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Slavery behind the food on your table

In the two years since the global crisis erupted, conditions in Spain for migrant workers from Morocco, West Africa and Eastern Europe that were already appalling have deteriorated further.

The crisis has driven unemployment in Spain to 20%, forcing Spanish workers to compete for work in the huge plastic-covered farms which grow salad and vegetables destined for sale in all the major supermarkets in Britain and other parts of Europe.

As the recession and inflation bites into living standards across the world, and the cost of competition amongst the supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury drives their buyers to put the squeeze on the price they pay to farmers, payments to the workers have been reduced to less than half of the legal minimum wage.

Research by investigative journalist Felicity Lawrence and charities reveals that migrants in Almeria, adjacent to the main tourist destination of the Costa del Sol, are now living in unbelievable squalor.

They live in “chabolas”, shelters made from used vegetable boxes covered in plastic, without food, water or work. Increasing numbers are reduced to taking handouts from charities like the Red Cross and groups of nuns just to stay alive.

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.

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... 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.
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.

Wages approaching zero, and declining profits shine a bright light on the unsustainable character of food production using capitalist methods.

Rather than weep for the supermarkets, or try to find solutions to their problems, there has to be another way. Food production is undergoing a dramatic turnaround in Venezuala. The Bolivarian revolution led by Hugo Chavez is establishing a food system free of corporate control, rejecting the free market, capitalist ideology and developing alternative systems of international trade and co-operation.

With a state controlled system, cheap agricultural credit has increased from $164 million in 1999 to $7.6 billion in 2008. In a new system of participatory democracy, more than 35,000 community councils as well as councils of farmers and fishermen are enabling communities to monitor their food needs, shape food policies and take control of their local food systems.

These, and other examples, have to be the way forward.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
A World to Win Blogs Slavery behind the food on your table

No comments:

Post a Comment