Cross compliance for labour laws?

The Global Mail reports on a shocking case of alleged abuses of migrant workers in the Spanish horticulture industry, concentrated in the southern Spanish region of Almería along a 200km strip of hothouses known as el mar de plásticos. This is where much of Europe’s salad vegetable crop is grown.

Allegations range from payment below the minimum wage, employment of illegal migrants, intimidation and, in the most recent case, murder. The UK’s Guardian newspaper’s special correspondent Felicity Lawrence wrote a startling report into labour abuses in €2 billion a year hothouse industry. She found:

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.

Charities working with illegal workers claim the abuses meet the UN’s official definition of modern-day slavery and that the Spanish economic downturn is making matters worse, as workers are laid off in the construction industry and seek work in agriculture, thus swelling the pool of labour. It’s not just Spain. Again, Felicity Lawrence has reported on abuses of farm workers in the UK:

“Twelve agricultural workers living in a caravan with no water, sanitation, lighting, heating or cooking facilities. Thirty workers living in a two-bedroom house that was structurally dangerous, threatened by men wielding baseball bats if they complained. A worker who lost a leg when the illegal minivan transporting him was involved in an accident. A bonded worker doing 12 hours hard labour six days a week from 3.30am milking cows and breaking rocks on a dairy farm. These are a tiny number of the cases of extreme exploitation found by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) during its recent inspections. Last year it uncovered 845 cases of workers being exploited in the food processing and farming business in the UK.”

I have no doubt that the picture is similar in other member states.

The Common Agricultural Policy aims to ensure that recipients of EU farm subsidies observe EU minimum standards on protection of the environment and care of animals. The CAP does not play a large role in supporting the horticulture sector through direct subsidies but it does provide other aid to producer groups and it is not by any means clear that the problem of worker abuse is confined to the less subsidised parts of the agricultural economy.

Should the CAP’s cross compliance rules be extended to cover treatment of agricultural workers? Should farms where labour abuse takes place be disqualified from receiving subsidies?

This post is written by Jack Thurston

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3 Replies to “Cross compliance for labour laws?”

  1. It would at least on the surface seem fair and reasonable that any state or EU aid should be withheld from those carrying out illegal activity. In this particular case it would be reasonable to withhold aid if the business were found guilty by the appropriate court. It would not be appropriate to apply sanctions prior to court judgement on the basis of a spot check by cross compliance inspectors. Cross compliance inspectors, and anyone else, have a duty to report such misconduct to the appropriate authority. It is only after the authority has passed judgement that cross compliance penalties should be applied.

    Cross compliance is a far too easy way to impose penalty without appropriate legal judgement or appropriate procedures that a court of law would follow. The rigidity of cross compliance provides no appropriate assessment as a court would apply on the appropriate action.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Simon.

    Since many cross compliance standards are in fact the EU legal baseline, why do you not apply a similar argument to environmental and animal welfare standards – i.e. a court decision should be required before subsidies can be withheld? Why are spot checks by inspectors sufficient to police environmental and animal welfare compliance but not labour standards compliance?

  3. There is an interesting discussion in the recent Court of Auditor’s opinion on the Commission’s legislative proposals on exclusions from aid which throws light on the question raised by Simon. The Court notes that, in the Articlde 65 of the proposed Horizontal Regulation which deals with cross-compliance, two alternative wordings are juxtaposed.

    The first two paragraphs of this articles deal with infringements to ‘eligibility criteria’ or ‘commitments’ imposed on beneficiaries. In the first case, such infringements result in the aid being ‘withdrawn in full or in part’, while in the second case, they result in ‘penalties by way of reduction or exclusion’ of the payment granted or to be granted. The Court rightly notes that the difference between a partial withdrawal of a payment and a penalty by way of reduction of the payment is not explained anywhere. However, what the Commission appear to have in mind is that withdrawal means loss of the relevant payment, while a penalty could mean, in addition, the loss of other payments for which eligibility criteria have been met, where this is provided for in Union law.

    Jack’s point is valid that payment of the aid is conditional on the farmer observing particular practices and standards. The fact that these are in any case statutory obligations rightly raises the question why farmers should be given a payment for observing the law. The Commission’s response (and that of the farm organisations) is that the payment recognises that EU standards are higher than those required of imported produce and the payment is intended to level the playing field. This in itself is a debatable proposition, but not the point of this comment.

    Given that the payment is made in respect of particular practices and standards, it seems entirely reasonable that the aid should be withheld, in part or in whole, for non-observance of these standards.

    Given that the standards are statutory requirements, one would expect that a civil prosecution would accompany the withholding of payments. I don’t know if data exist that would allow this correlation to be drawn, but I suspect there are major discrepancies.

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