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Invisible workers: Underpaid, exploited and put at risk on Europes farms

They toil away for hours on end, under blazing sunshine or drenching rain, to cultivate and harvest ..

They toil away for hours on end, under blazing sunshine or drenching rain, to cultivate and harvest the fruits and vegetables we so easily take for granted.

As the coronavirus pandemic swept across Europe, those helping to bring food to our plates suddenly became visible, even hailed as “essential workers”. But for the past six decades, the European Union’s farming policy has overlooked their labour rights and living conditions.

The EUs common agricultural policy – the biggest pool of subsidies in the world – aims to support farm owners and pumps nearly €60 billion into the sector each year. The working conditions of those employed by these farms, however, are not even mentioned in the subsidies scheme.

“At the moment we have this crazy situation where we actually have better protection for animals than for some of these workers on our farms,” said German Green MEP Daniel Freund.

In a joint investigation with Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel and Mediapart, Euronews interviewed dozens of farmworkers across the continent, most of them cross-border migrants.

They complained of unpaid hours, working under tremendous pressure, with very little water or protection, some fainting and vomiting from the exhaustion. They showed us dire housing conditions and spoke of cases of verbal, physical and even sexual abuse.

“We hear that migrants come because its hard to recruit, because theres a labour shortage,” says Catherine Laurent, of the French National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA).

“Its worth asking ourselves: is it hard to recruit because theres a labour shortage, or because the conditions these workers have to face are such that its practically impossible for locals to accept them?”

Spain: Shantytowns and punishments

Spain is Europes leading producer of fruit and vegetables. In the southern province of Huelva, strawberries are known as “red gold,” a juicy business worth around €500 million in revenue each year.

But the industry hides a rotten side. Many farmworkers in the region are undocumented migrants living in “chabolas” – shacks made up of discarded pallets, pieces of cardboard and plastic leftover from greenhouses. These have no access to electricity, sanitation or clean water.

“A country as developed as Spain, a European country… I don’t understand how they can allow for this situation to go on,” says Seydou Diop, who used to pick strawberries and live in one of these shantytowns. He now runs a workers collective supporting the undocumented migrants who he says make up a large part of the contingent of farmworkers in the region.

Euronews and its partners interviewed over 20 current and former fruit pickers in Huelva. Many said they werent given any masks or gloves during the COVID-19 pandemic. All complained of unpaid hours, gruelling working conditions and tremendous pressure to collect large volumes of fruit.

José Antonio Brazo, a SAT union representative in Huelva, said those who arent productive enough get punished: “Its medieval. If you don’t collect the amount requested, there are punishments of one, two or three days where you stay home without pay. So, on those days, you can’t bring money home.”

Most of the workers we spoke to for this investigation asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. Several had worked for Bionest – also known as Berrynest – which collected €4.4 million in CAP subsidies last year alone, according to data provided by the Spanish government.

Bionest did not reply to our repeated requests for comment. Its website carries a special message thanking “all the farmworkers, packhouse workers, all the persons involved in our activity who occupy their jobs every day in these difficult times”.

In the same town of Almonte, 10 Moroccan women filed a lawsuit last year against a different farm, Doñana 1998, claiming they had been trafficked, sexually assaulted and exploited while picking strawberries in the area. Their lawyers say they have come to symbolise whats wrong with the industry.

The women gave Euronews a long and detailed account of their alleged sexual and psychological abuse. They talked about not getting paid and going hungry, to the point of searching for food in garbage bins. They spoke of forced prostitution and used the word “slaves” multiple times to describe their time on the farm, and said that coming to Spain had destroyed their lives.

Doñana 1998 said in an emailed statement that all the accusations are false, and provided court rulings dismissing the claims. The womens lawyers are currently challenging these rulings in both local and national courts.

For several of the “10 girls from Huelva,” as they became known back in Morocco, the shame brought on by the legal case has meant divorce, losing custody of their children and having their reputation tainted for life.

“We just can’t eat strawberries anymore, because of all the problems we had,” one of the women told Euronews.

France: Welcome to hell

By far the EUs biggest producer of oilseeds and cereals, France receives more agricultural subsidies than any other member state – over €7 billion euros each year, according to EU data.

Juan, a young Colombian, flew into the country with a working holiday visa. He heard of the Larrère farms on a Facebook page advertising a job as a seasonal farmworker in southwestern France. But he wasnt hired for the job by Larrère – instead, by a subcontractor that regularly provides seasonal workers to Larrère and other farms in the region.

Juan was repatriated to Colombia with help from consular authorities at the end of May after his two-month stint as a farmworker in locked-down France proved a bitter disappointment. Starting with the accommodation: a guest house cramming in more than 40 seasonal workers.

“‘Welcome to hell’, I remember being told. And I thought it was a joke. But when they opened the door and I saw the house… it was a disaster,” Juan, who requested we dont publish his full name, said in a phone interview.

Euronews and its partners obtained copies of blueprints of the house, owned by the Larrère family, as well as logs of tenants and the rent they paid – around €200 a month, deducted straight from their payslip. In late June, the tenants gave our reporters a quick tour.

Up to five adults were packed together in one bedroom. Others slept in bunk beds, in violation of French laws relating to the housing of seasonal workers. No bedsheets or pillows were provided. There was no toilet paper in the restrooms.

The Larrère farms are major producers of organic carrots in France, with annual sales of around €50 million. They receive more than €300,000 in European CAP subsidies each year, according to government data.

We spoke to more than a dozen people who worked on these farms. They described long working days, extra hours left unpaid, and excessive housing costs.

The family-owned companys chief executive, Patrick Larrère, emailed a lengthy statement in response to our investigation. He said that since our visit, the company had carried out an internal survey and acknowledged some shortcomings in its organisation, but that most of the respondents planned to return to work on its farms in the future.

Larrère added that it would draw up a code of ethics to improve management and working conditions. It promised to provide bedsheets and called on local and national authorities to help with the housing of its workers during the summer tourist season.

The human cost of cheap meat

In slaughterhouses around the world, clusters of COVID-19 exposed the cramped working and living conditions of those butchering the meat that hits our supermarket shelves.

The German meatpacking firm Tönnies came under fire when it struggled to help authorities track and trace hundreds of infected workers. Much of the companys workforce is hired in Eastern Europe, via subcontractors accused by unions of underpaying extra working hours and charging migrant workers hundreds of euros of rental fees for a bed in a shared room.

The issue took a diplomatic turn when Romanias Labour Minister Violeta Alexandru drove from Bucharest to Germany in May to complain about the treatment of her compatriots in the countrys meat plants and its asparagus farms.

“Things should be clear from the very beginning: What is my salary? What are the extra payments if I work more, and to what extent am I allowed to work more,” Alexandru told Euronews.

She insisted that inspecting working conditions falls to member states, but suggested the EU could better use its firepower to drive change in subsidised sectors like farming.

“I think it is our role in the EU to make sure that the money from the taxpayers at a European level is treated respectfully, including by making verifications and checking that all employees under these contracts covered by European funds have the minimum social protection for the work that they are providing,” she said.

‘Social dumping’

On June 19, the European Parliament acknowledged the challenges faced by seasonal and cross-border workers when it passed a resolution calling for urgent action to safeguard their health and safety. It stated that the pandemic had “exposed and exacerbated social dumping and the existing precariousness” for many of them.

MEPs called on the Commission to tackle abusive subcontracting practices and to ensure that the European Labour Authority (ELA) becomes fully operational as a matter of priority. They also urged member states to strengthen labour inspections and ensure quality housing thats decoupled from workers wages.

The European Commission has now unveiled guidelines for member states to better protect the health and social rights of seasonal workers.

“You cannot have a business model which is based on some form of exploitation of foreign workers,” Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, told Euronews.

“These workers are essential workers because in this crisis, if we hadn’t had them, we would have a food crisis.”

Tomas Statius contributed reporting from France, Carlos Marlasca, Zach Campbell and Steffen Lüdke from Spain, Henrik Merker from Germany, Mari Jeanne Ion from Romania and Jack Parrock and Efi Koutsokosta from Brussels.

“Invisible Workers” is a months-long joint newsroom investigation led by Lighthouse Reports, featuring Der Spiegel, Mediapart, Euronews, the Guardian, Follow the Money and the Investigative Reporting Project Italy.

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Aliku Ogorchukwu: Wife of Nigerian killed in Italy demands justice

The wife of a Nigerian street trader who was killed in Italy has told the BBC she is seeking justice following his “painful death”.

Aliku Ogorchukwu, 39, was reportedly selling handkerchiefs in the seaside town of Civitanova Marche on Friday when he was chased and beaten to death.

A 32-year-old Italian has been arrested on suspicion of murder and robbery.

A video circulating online shows a man on top of Ogorchukwu, punching him with his bare hands.

None of those who witnessed the broad daylight attack appeared to intervene.

“This is a form of wickedness I don’t know,” Ogorchukwu’s wife, Charity Oriachi, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa.

Ms Oriachi said she had received help in coming to terms with her husband’s death but was tired of “talk”. Now, she was only interested in justice, she insisted.

Her family had lived in Italy for a long time, she said, stressing that her husband had never sought any trouble.

The killing has sparked outrage in the local community, including Nigerians, who took to the streets over the weekend and are planning another demonstration soon.

The Nigerian government has asked Italian authorities to quickly “bring the perpetrator of the heinous act” to justice.

Suspect not released

The suspect – a white man named as Filippo Claudio Giuseppe Ferlazzo – has been ordered to remain in jail as the investigation continues.

His defence lawyer told the media the suspect had said he was sorry and that there was “no racial element” involved.

A police investigator said Ogorchukwu was attacked after the trader’s “insistent” requests to the suspect and his partner for spare change.

The partner, identified as Elena D, told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Ogorchukwu had touched her arm, but that did not bother her.

Ms Oriachi now wants to see the suspect “face to face”, to understand why he killed her husband, the family’s lawyer told the Associated Press.

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Ukrainian widow confronts Russian soldier accused of killing her husband

In the very first days of this invasion a 62-year-old unarmed civilian was shot dead on a village street outside his Ukrainian home. His name was Oleksandr Shelipov.

Three months later and the captured Russian soldier accused of killing him is in Kyiv being tried for a war crime.

Standing up in court to confront the 21-year-old defendant on Thursday was Kateryna Shelipova, the widow of the man killed.

Did he repent his crime, she asked?

The Russian tank commander, Vadim Shishimarin, replied that he admitted his guilt and asked for her forgiveness. “But I understand you won’t be able to forgive me,” he added.

Kateryna Shelipova hadn’t finished. “Tell me please, why did you [Russians] come here? To protect us?” she asked, citing Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.

“Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?”

The soldier had no answer to that.

This landmark trial marks the first time a Russian serviceman has been put on the stand for war crimes since the invasion of Ukraine was launched in February.

And perhaps such raw encounters are what such trials are about, at least in part. Forcing a soldier – who ignored all the rules of war – to face up to exactly what he has done and the suffering he has caused.

Sgt Shishimarin has pleaded guilty and Ukrainian prosecutors are asking for him to be sentenced to life imprisonment.

On Wednesday, Ms Shelipova told me she actually felt sorry for the soldier, but she could not forgive him for this crime.

She heard the shots that killed her husband, then saw Sgt Shishimarin through her gate – holding his weapon.

Five minutes later she says she saw her husband’s body: “He was dead with a shot in his head. I started screaming very loudly.”

“The loss of my husband is everything for me,” Ms Shelipova said, adding: “He was my protector.”

‘It killed him’

Recalling the events of 28 February, Vadim Shishimarin said he and a small group of other Russian soldiers had become separated from their unit and hijacked a car in order to return to it.

“As we were driving, we saw a man. He was talking on the phone,” the defendant said.

He claimed that he hadn’t wanted to fire the fatal shots, that he was following orders – threatened by another soldier if he refused to do as he was told.

“He said I would be putting us in danger if I didn’t. I shot him at short range. It killed him,” the 21-year-old tank commander told the court.

Interestingly, his defence lawyer – appointed by the state – told me that no Russian official has been in touch with him, including from its defence ministry.

There is no Russian embassy in Kyiv these days, so no contact from there either.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman yesterday told the BBC that the Kremlin has “no information” about this case.

All in all, it feels rather like the young soldier has been abandoned to his fate by the commanders who sent him to war and continue to deny that their forces commit crimes here.

We also heard from a second Russian soldier who witnessed the killing in February and later surrendered to Ukrainian forces.

Ivan Maltysev, another slight and young-looking 21-year-old, told the court how the Russian soldiers spotted Oleksandr Shelipov while they were driving the stolen car.

Mr Maltysev claimed that Vadim Shishimarin was then ordered to shoot the victim because he was on the phone.

“Vadim didn’t do it. So the soldier, whose name I don’t know, turned round in the car and shouted that Vadim had to carry out the order, or we would be informed on.

“At this point, we were almost alongside the civilian and, under pressure, Vadim fired. He fired three or four rounds.”

Ukraine has so far identified more than 11,000 possible war crimes committed by Russia.

Moscow has denied its troops have targeted civilians, but investigators have been collecting evidence of possible war crimes to bring before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

This trial is Ukraine’s chance to prove, beyond doubt, that a Russian soldier killed a civilian with no regard for the rules of war.

Its prosecutors know they are in the spotlight, proceeding so quickly, and in the middle of a war.

That is why they are keen to be as transparent and thorough as possible – so that this is not seen as a show trial, but part of a vital quest for justice.

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Stop matching lone female Ukraine refugees with single men, UK told

The UN refugee agency has called on the UK government to intervene to stop single British men from being matched up with lone Ukrainian women seeking refuge from war because of fears of sexual exploitation.

Following claims that predatory men are using the Homes for Ukraine scheme to target the vulnerable, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) told the Guardian “a more appropriate matching process” could be put in place to ensure women and women with children are matched with families or couples.

The suggestion from the global refugee agency follows reports that Ukrainian refugees, predominantly women and sometimes accompanied by children, are at risk in the UK of sexual exploitation.

Under the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, British hosts must link up with Ukrainian refugees themselves, leaving tens of thousands of people to resort to unregulated social media groups to connect.

A government-backed matching service run by the charity Reset offers to match UK hosts with refugees but has been operating for just over a week. Those who want to move to the UK must have a sponsor before applying for a visa.

In a statement, the UNHCR said there was a need for adequate safeguards and vetting measures to be in place against exploitation, as well as adequate support for sponsors. “[The] UNHCR believes that a more appropriate matching process could be put in place by ensuring that women and women with children are matched with families or couples, rather than with single men.

“Matching done without the appropriate oversight may lead to increasing the risks women may face, in addition to the trauma of displacement, family separation and violence already experienced,” a spokesperson said.

Leading refugee charities raised their concerns about the Homes for Ukraine scheme in a letter to Michael Gove, the minister in charge of the scheme. Louise Calvey, the head of safeguarding at the charity Refugee Action, told the Observer it was at risk of being a “Tinder for sex traffickers”.

One 32-year-old woman from Bakhmut, Ukraine, who has been searching for an appropriate person to match in the UK, wrote that she had received suggestive messages from men on Facebook’s Messenger app. “I was approached by one older guy from London who said that I would have to share a bedroom with him, and was asked if I was OK with that,” she said in an email seen by the Guardian.

The Sunday Times reported this week that a journalist posing as a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman from Kyiv found that within minutes of posting a message on the largest Facebook group for UK hosts she was inundated with inappropriate messages.

Some men lied about having several bedrooms in their one-bed homes while another proposed sharing a bed, writing: “I have a large bed. We could sleep together.” Another sent a voice note that said: “I am ready to help you and maybe you can help me also.”

In its statement, the UNHCR also raised concerns about the repercussions should the original UK host prove a potential threat to the safety of the refugee, and the six-month minimum duration on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

“UNHCR believes that appropriate training and information are needed to ensure that hosts make an informed decision when applying to become sponsors. Housing a stranger in an extra bedroom for an extended period is not, for some people, sustainable,” the spokesperson said.

There is growing public anger over the length of time that Ukrainians are being forced to wait before being given visas from the Home Office amid the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, apologised on Friday for the time it had taken for Ukrainian refugees to arrive in the UK under two visa schemes, after figures showed only 12,000 had so far reached Britain.

Reports on Tuesday claimed Gove had been accused of bullying Home Office officials by Patel’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft.

Asked to respond to the UNHCR’s request for an intervention on sexual exploitation of Ukrainian women, a government spokesperson said: “Attempts to exploit vulnerable people are truly despicable – this is why we have designed our Homes for Ukraine scheme to have specific safeguards in place, including robust security and background checks on all sponsors, both by the Home Office and local authorities.

“Councils must make at least one in-person visit to a sponsors property and following guests arrival, they have a duty to ensure the guest is safe and well.

“We have also partnered with the charity Reset Communities and Refugees to fund and provide a matching service for sponsors and refugees to ensure that matches made are suitable, safe and successful. This service will vet eligibility, assess needs, and provide training for sponsors to ensure they

ensure they can support the people they host.”

Asked to confirm or deny whether there had been a complaint that Gove had bullied staff, the spokesperson added: “Humanitarian schemes set up in record time by the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities working closely together are helping thousands of Ukrainians find safety in the UK.”


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