Agricultural workers in Spain reportedly treated like 'slaves' as they supply UK supermarkets

A leading human rights lawyer has reacted angrily to revelations that migrant workers are treated like ‘slaves’ in Spain when growing vegetables for sale in UK supermarkets, and warns that some workers in the UK are suffering similar slave-like treatment even as the new Modern Slavery Act comes into force.

An investigation by Channel 4 News found that migrant workers in Southern Spain producing vegetables exported to Britain’s supermarkets say they are denied basic hygiene facilities, are under-paid and exposed to dangerous substances while producing the vegetables in Murcia.

Among those accused of treating their workers in this way is a firm supplying salad and vegetables to Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda.

"This is the second time in less than a year that UK supermarkets have been linked to modern slavery in their supply chains," said Shanta Martin,international claims partner at law firm Leigh Day, referring to the Guardian investigation in June 2014 that revealed allegations that men were being bought and sold like animals and held against their will on prawn fishing boats off Thailand.

Sainsbury’s and Waitrose said they would investigate the most recent allegations immediately. All the major British supermarkets claim they source food responsibly.

Ms Martin explained that British companies will have a legal obligation to report on modern slavery in their supply chains after the Modern Slavery Act was granted Royal Assent on 26 March 2015, on the final day of Parliament.

The Act requires UK business to disclose what they are doing to ensure there is no slavery in their supply chain or any part of their business.

It also increases the maximum sentence for serious offences from 14 years to life in prison, and provides more protection and support for victims.

Ms Martin said:

“The treatment of these workers appears to be nothing less than slavery. UK supermarkets are well and truly under the spotlight and will need to take impressive steps to convince people that they are actively preventing these kinds of conditions in their supply chains."