This interview was carried out on the 16th of July, when the region of El Segrià and some adjacent areas were locked down due to new outbreaks of Covid-19
Manel Simón, manager of Afrucat, the business association that represents 95% of the sector, talked to Fruit Today about the pandemic situation in Lerida.
Have you changed from being essential in the toughest part of the pandemic to being blamed for the outbreak the region is suffering from?
Yes, we have. Some areas of the media have not checked the data or the information and they turned an exception into the rule. All of this, possibly, in the search for readers or viewers.
We have been treated as racists, of mistreating the seasonal workers and of being responsible for the coronavirus. All these statements are enormously irresponsible. If we have detected positive cases, it is because we have carried out tests. Without the tests, we don’t realise that asymptomatic cases make up 85% of the positive cases detected. We are working strictly and with respect for the virus, and we are clear that the infections have occurred in private, social areas after the San Juan festivities, but we have detected them ourselves.
Three months ago, all of Spain needed manpower. Has too much arrived, without any control?
Indeed, a few months ago, not only in Lerida, but throughout the European production regions there was a shortage of manpower. The word spread through the emigrants, both those who were regularised and those who were not.
I don’t believe that we are to be blamed for the irregular situation of the emigrants who sleep on the streets and who arrive every year to make a living. It is completely inhumane for these situations to exist, but unfortunately, the solution to their problem is outside our area of action.
We can’t give work to people without valid papers because we run the risk of being fined. They are in a legal limbo. I personally do not know anybody in Catalonia who gives work to people without papers, and if this were to occur, as the association “Fruita amb Justícia Social” explains, I would invite them to make a report and not carry out a press conference in front of our head offices, with no previous discussions. Do you not think that it is a subliminal way of making us look guilty when we are only obeying the law? I don’t think this is the right way to go about it.
If you are “slave drivers” (excuse the expression, but it is the judgement you have received by the media), why is this situation not sorted out with trustworthy allegations before the Labour Inspectorate?
I ask myself the same question. I suppose it is more profitable for the media to criminalise the sector, rather than following the legal paths. What is more, the gates to the fields are open and the Labour Inspectorate can appear whenever it wants. The work centres are also geo-located for visits. If this happens, it must be proved. I guarantee that it doesn’t happen in the companies belonging to Afrucat. There are always businessmen who cheat, but not in the association I represent, just as they might exist in other sectors. In this case, they would be in unfair competition with us.
Can you give me data about the inspections carried out?
Yes, of course. Last year around 1,000 inspections were carried out by the Labour Inspectorate (Unió de Payesos also has these figures) and the end result was one single slight penalty.
Do you think that the public administrations assume their responsibilities?
Categorically no. From the humanitarian point of view, no person should sleep on the streets. This damages the sector from the commercial point of view, and more so when, next to these images, it is reported that there are businessmen who use, fraudulently, this manpower in order to pay 2 or 3 euros per hour instead of the legally agreed amount. False. Fruita amb Justícia Social reports that everyone ignores the legal agreements and it spreads this opinion across the national media. This is categorically false. We do not acknowledge this. If this is the case, it must be reported.
Do the companies belonging to Afrucat respect the legal labour agreement?
Of course. Every year they negotiate with the national trade unions, CCOO and UGT regarding the economic conditions and these conditions are respected. When the labour inspection comes to the work places, it can be seen that the agreement is being respected.
How many PCRs or serological tests have been carried out?
Over 5,000, and they continue to be carried out every two weeks. When the lockdown easing started, the virus was not at zero levels because this is impossible and we continue to live with it. It was only a question of time before it reappeared. From the very beginning (April), the sector had prepared a prevention protocol that was reviewed by the Public Health Department, which also made its own contributions and it was examined by the trade union UGT, as well as setting up an ‘ad hoc’ website, available to everyone (coronavirus.afrucat.com). An exceptionally strict protocol.
As I already mentioned, after the San Juan festivities, we detected the first cases in some companies, but this does not mean that they were infected within the work centres, because social transmission still exists. We cannot control what a worker does outside the work centre. What I would state is that our centres are true bunkers, and inside them transmission is virtually impossible due to the safety and hygiene measures.
We, along with the mutual societies started testing the workers en masse. We found positive cases, but they were asymptomatic and, obviously, we took quarantine measures. Asymptomatic cases cannot be recognised unless a test is carried out. At that point, the Public Health Department communicated that cases had been detected in fruit and vegetable growing companies and this was irresponsible. The number of cases will continue to rise as the mass testing takes place, because there are many asymptomatic cases. In the same way that if we carried out indiscriminate tests in the middle of the Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid or in the Plaza de Cataluña in Barcelona, there would be the same amount of positive cases as at least the seroprevalence rate monitored by the Ministry of Health and the Institute Carlos III. And the rest is common knowledge.