Protecting migrant women workers in food supply chains during COVID-19

The first 1,200 Moroccan women of the group of 7,100 tempororary workers trapped in the province of Huelva due to the closure of the borders after the coronavirus crisis after working in the strawberry campaign. EFE / Julián Pérez

The COVID-19 pandemic—like all crises—has a distinct impact on women and girls, posing the risk of exacerbating pre-existing gender and other intersecting inequalities now and in the future. Prior to the pandemic, women migrant workers involved in the harvesting of soft fruits in Spain were suffering a host of systematic human rights abuses. This crisis has now shone a light on the structural discrimination that these women face, highlighting how women already experiencing marginalisation are differentially and disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Unless their rights are protected, their voices heard, and their needs met, they will be further deprived of justice as a result of this crisis. 

Seasonal workers in the agriculture sector in Spain 

Despite the fact that just under half of all migrant workers across the world are women, very little action has been taken by states or companies to recognise and combat the specific abuse suffered by women migrant workers, such as discriminatory working conditions, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and physical violence. Further, because women are overrepresented in the migrant worker sector, and because gender-based discrimination intersects with factors including race, social-economic factors, and migration status, women migrant workers often experience violations of their human rights in ways which are unique to their gender.

This crisis has now shone a light on the structural discrimination that these women face, highlighting how women already experiencing marginalisation are differentially and disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

The Moroccan women hired each year to assist with strawberry crop harvesting in southern Spain have becoming emblematic of the rights violations suffered by women seasonal migrant workers. Despite the fact that systematic exploitation of migrant workers in Huelva is said to have been going on for many years, it was not until 2018 that reports of exploitative labour conditions, physical abuse, sexual assaults, and racism gained wider attention. These experiences are unfortunately a paradigmatic example of the nexus between gender, migration, and corporate human rights abuses, demonstrating how certain business models fuel labour exploitation.

Migrant workers’ rights during COVID-19 times

For the 2019/2020 season, Spain’s Ministry of Employment and Ministry of Immigration gave the authority for 20,195 women workers from Morocco to be recruited for the fruit harvesting season—a small proportion of the 90,000 people usually required for harvesting soft fruits in Spain. Despite being a minority group, Moroccan women in fact make up the majority of those employed in the gruelling physical labour of collecting the soft fruits. 

During the recent “state of alarm”, agricultural workers have been classified as “essential workers” by the Spanish Government to ensure the continuation of food supply. However, due to the closure of the border between Spain and Morocco, agreed on 12 March 2020, the burden of harvesting has now fallen on the 7,028 Moroccan women who arrived in Spain before the border closure—a far cry from the amount of workers needed to effectively bring in the harvest. Further, reports of failures to provide these seasonal workers with appropriate personal protective equipment while they are working have led to the concerns of COVID-19 spreading rapidly within this community.

This crisis has now shone a light on the structural discrimination that these women face, highlighting how women already experiencing marginalisation are differentially and disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

In early April, in the absence of sufficient workers, the Spanish government agreed to make hiring conditions more flexible to avoid under-supply. As steps were slowly taken to lift lockdown measures, the possibility of moving seasonal workers from Huelva to other provinces to ensure sufficient labour in the agricultural sector was being explored, regardless of the impact this displacement would have on the lives of the women involved. While this possibility did not ultimately materialise, it is yet another indication that the Spanish state has paid little heed to the rights of seasonal workers during the pandemic as long as labour needs are met, and the food supply is maintained.

The temporary or seasonal work in which migrant women are often engaged does not offer unemployment protection, and the women often have difficulty accessing essential services, including healthcare. Further, it is said that around 50% of the migrants living in informal settlements in the region are currently working in the berry fields in Huelva. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty pointed out in his visit to Spain in January of 2020, the abysmal living conditions there rival the worst informal settlements in the world, lacking direct access to water, electricity or adequate sanitation. This situation has only further deteriorated during the state of alarm, with inhabitants of these settlements being forced to shelter during the pandemic in these unsanitary conditions, and being denied the chance to seek employment. 

Looking forward: a more sustainable approach

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the panorama for women migrant workers in the strawberry fields was bleak. This new and unprecedented situation clearly brings a whole new set of challenges which require an immediate response. For example:

  1. The fact that less women have been hired for the same work, coupled with the inaccessibility of protection (including to healthcare services or access to remedy) and the lack of sufficient control by the authorities, makes it highly probable that the migrant workers will be exposed to even more serious conditions of labour exploitation than in previous years;

  2. Increasing numbers of undocumented migrants, who are at particular risk of COVID-19 because of their living conditions and inability to access healthcare and other essential services, may be employed without any guarantee of their rights;

  3. The lack of safety protection at work, combined with lack of access to healthcare and overcrowded living conditions, may lead to a major COVID-19 outbreak.

Through our recently released Guide for Europe: Protecting the rights of women and girls in times of the COVID-19 Pandemic and its aftermath, Women’s Link Worldwide, Amnesty International and International Planned Parenthood Federation have called on European States to take action to ensure that women’s and girls’ rights continue to be respected and protected both during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the aftermath. Given that women, particularly migrant women, are overrepresented in the informal labour sector, we have highlighted the importance of considering gender within pandemic contingency plans. It is vital that states specifically include female migrants within their response to COVID-19, ensuring that all women can continue to access essential services such as healthcare (particularly sexual and reproductive healthcare services), and that the labour rights of migrants in essential occupations during the pandemic, such as the female migrant workers in Huelva, continue to be observed.

On June 2nd, Women’s Link Worldwide submitted an urgent appeal to the United Nations Special Rapporteurs, highlighting how the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the rights violations that the Moroccan migrant women and other migrant workers have historically suffered. Responding rapidly to this matter, an initial response from several of the rapporteurs has already been issued, emphasising the need for states to take steps to ensure the protection of migrants rights. 

While it is undoubtedly positive that there is a model which allows migrant women to travel to Spain for employment opportunities within a legal framework, such systems cannot be allowed to continue with business as usual at the expense of workers’ human rights. Solutions must not be limited to reacting to the inequalities which are exposed as part of the ongoing pandemic. Rather, sustainable solutions must look beyond this crisis to ensure the protection of rights on a broader scale, taking into consideration the differential impact on women and girls, especially those experiencing intersecting and persisting forms of discrimination.

This piece is part of a blog series focusing on the gender dimensions of business and human rights. The blog series is in partnership with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and OpenGlobalRights. The views expressed in the series are those of the authors. For more on the latest news and resources on gender, business, and human rights, visit this portal.