A court in Spain has acquitted a manager accused of sexual advances and using the threat of dismissal to demand sex, in a blow to a landmark legal challenge that sought to cast a spotlight on sexual abuse in the country’s meat processing industry.
The behaviour was alleged to have taken place at an abattoir north of Barcelona, a region that has helped transform Spain into Europe’s largest pork producer.
The two women who brought the case, who have appealed the court’s decision, claim the harassment began in 2016, as the Spanish industry experienced a boom in production.
The number of pigs slaughtered in Spain has soared to record levels in recent years, surpassing more than 58 million animals last year.
Montserrat Castañé said she was cleaning in the facility when a manager who worked for a company subcontracted by the plant, demanded a kiss.
Castañé refused. What followed was four years of harassment and unwanted touching, claimed Castañé. She alleged her harasser also demanded sex, warning her that he could have her fired if she didn’t comply.
More than two years after the women went to police, a judge at a court in Manresa, near Barcalona, has absolved the accused of all charges, noting that there were no “direct witnesses or references to the facts presented”. The judge’s decision, seen by the Guardian, noted that it was “striking” that the two women took years to file a complaint.
The decision also absolved the subcontracted company, where the accused had worked, of any liability.
Castañé said that she and the other woman were not ready to give up. “This decision is not the end,” she said. “We will continue to fight harassment against women, both in the courts and in the streets.”
Castañé, who has worked in the meat industry since she was 11 years old, said she was compelled to go public after realising she wasn’t the only one being harassed. She has alleged that other female employees – most of whom are migrants – are reluctant to speak out over fears of retaliation.
She and another worker, who declined to speak to the Guardian and asked not to be named, filed a complaint with police in September 2020 shortly after raising the issue with the company that owns the plant and the subcontracted company. Prosecutors later accused the man of two counts of sexual harassment.
The allegations have given voice to what Toni Iborra, the lawyer representing the two women, characterised as an open secret in the male-dominated industry.
“In the meat industry there are many women who work in very harsh conditions, historically there have been many situations of sexual harassment,” he said. “Now, for the first time the problem is being discussed. Normally, working women do not dare to report because they work to survive.”
In a 2021 sectoral brief, the International Labour Organization said that the use of subcontracting in the meat processing sector, a common practice in Spain, risked leaving workers vulnerable to exploitative working conditions including sexual harassment and abuse by line managers.
One of the few attempts to quantify harassment in the industry comes from Iowa in the US, where, in 2009, a non-profit carried out an informal survey of 100 women working at meatpacking plants. An analysis of their responses suggested 41% had experienced unwanted touching, while 30% had received sexual propositions.
In 2018, poultry supplier Koch Foods paid $3.75m (£3.12m) to settle a class employment discrimination lawsuit after the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged that supervisors “touched and/or made sexually suggestive comments” to female Hispanic employees at a chicken processing plant in Mississippi.
Castañé estimates women make up about 10% of the workforce at the Catalan facility, mostly working as cleaners or lab technicians. The bulk of the plant’s workers are migrants, she said, from countries such as Senegal, Morocco and Ukraine.
After Castañé spoke up about the allegations, the subcontracted company opened an investigation and later fired the accused manager, while the plant hired an additional guard to reinforce security, particularly for employees on the night shift.
In a statement to the Guardian, the lawyer for the accused said his client denied the allegations, describing them as “false and unfounded”.
The lawyer pointed to a September judicial hearing addressing the allegations, saying that a “multitude” of co-workers testified that they had never witnessed the accused behaving improperly or irregularly towards female subordinates or co-workers.
“We are talking about a company that has a multitude of workers in all of its shifts, two permanent security personnel and a very extensive CCTV circuit that did not pick up anything because precisely nothing happened,” he said.
The company that runs the plant did not respond to requests for comment.
The two women said they were now waiting to see how their appeal progresses. Castañé described the acquittal as the “worst-case scenario we could imagine”, but vowed to fight on. “I’m proud of what we have done. Our lives have been torn apart, but we aren’t fighting just for ourselves. This is for all female workers.”
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