Why ethical food trade is only possible with supermarket action

Migrant worker
Workers harvesting the food we eat are frequently at risk of exploitation and abuse. Photo courtesy of The Harvest
International supply chains leave the horticultural workers harvesting our food in poor countries highly vulnerable to exploitation. Retailers, unions, NGOs and governments must work together to tackle this, says Julia Hawkins

Mary is a young casual worker. I met her while she was picking fine beans on a smallholding farm in Tanzania, which had been contracted by a larger farm to produce beans for export to the UK.

Her work looked quite literally back-breaking: fine bean bushes grow to only about a foot from the ground, so she spends most of her nine-hour day bent almost double to pick the beans, then collecting them in plastic containers for weighing. The weighing bit is important – she gets paid per kilo, so she needs to work quickly to make sure she gets an adequate income at the end of the day. This is in temperatures rising to over 30 degrees in the shade.

Mary’s situation is similar to millions of horticulture workers around the world who work for low wages, with little awareness of their rights, producing vegetables and salad sold to us through our supermarkets.

Yet she’s relatively lucky. She told me she was aware she has rights, describing being shown how to bend in a way that doesn’t hurt her back. She’s also hopeful about the future, and trying to save for it, even though saving is harder for casual piece-rate workers who tend to get paid less than permanent workers.

Things were different twenty or so years ago. Most of our horticulture products were grown in the UK. So if we wanted green beans, we could have them, as long as they were in season. Then our supermarkets discovered that it’s often cheaper to grow products in warmer climes than it is in the UK, where growing periods can only be extended by using expensive and environmentally damaging greenhouses.

So to satisfy our demand for year-round availability, they started sourcing first from Southern European countries like Spain, then further afield in East and Southern Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

International supply chains

A single product might now be sourced from as many as 20 countries, with production shifting from one country to another as the seasons change. Many of these countries are poor, with governments often either unable or unwilling to enforce laws set up to protect workers’ rights.

The horticulture sector is also highly seasonal, with huge peaks and troughs in demand as the weather changes. It’s not unusual for a salad buyer to phone her supplier the day before a bank holiday to increase an order by 50 per cent if the forecast suddenly changes for the better.

This just-in-time ordering is fantastic for us consumers but it puts a great strain on suppliers. Often it forces them to hire extra numbers of casual, often migrant, workers at short notice, or to pressure workers to toil even longer hours. They may also resort to buying in product from secondary suppliers who may not be as interested as them in meeting the required labour standards.

Another characteristic of this sector is the prevalence of smallholders – farmers who own or rent very small plots of land. This is because produce like green beans and other horticulture crops need a lot of care and attention, which smallholder production allows. Smallholders also provide greater flexibility of production than larger growers.

But while growing cash crops for export provides smallholders with vital income, this type of production poses challenges for retailers seeking to improve pay and conditions in the sector.

Vulnerability of workers

For example, smallholder farmers are often heavily reliant on unpaid family labour and tend to lack awareness about the need to protect workers’ rights.  They are also sometimes geographically quite remote, making it hard for retailers to trace them and monitor their conditions.

All of this – combined with weak bargaining power of suppliers with their supermarket customers – increases the vulnerability of horticulture workers to exploitation. The migrant workers that are a feature of the sector are particularly vulnerable, often cut off from support networks and lacking the same legal protections as indigenous workers.

Yet horticulture exports provide vital income and livelihoods for millions of workers and farmers around the world. If that was to disappear, hundreds of thousands of poor and vulnerable people would become much worse off.

So what can be done to improve workers’ lives across the sector?

There are a number of key things supermarkets and their suppliers can do. For a start, they need to properly map their supply chains. That means not just assessing workers’ conditions in their direct suppliers, but tracing production right down to small outgrowers, working with others to understand risks and prevailing conditions. ETI members’ experience has shown that workers are more vulnerable to exploitation the further they are down the supply chain.


Secondly, they need to build closer and more transparent relationships with their suppliers, based on a recognition of mutual self-interest. Our members have also learned that top-down ‘policing’ of suppliers at best has been ineffective at driving change, and at worst has merely helped push problems underground. They are starting to invest far greater time in building suppliers’ awareness of the importance of treating workers’ with respect, and helping them build proper management structures, which reaps dividends for workers and business alike.

Third, they need to look at purchasing practices – including the lead times they give for orders, and contractual terms for suppliers. Some of our member companies are experimenting with developing balanced scorecards for their buying teams which incentivise them to consider ethical issues as well as price and quality when placing orders with suppliers.

Also, they need to collaborate with others. Low wages, discrimination and other forms of exploitation are present in many supply chains and no single company can hope to tackle them on its own. That means working not just with their peers, but also with trade unions that represent workers as well as the NGOs that campaign on behalf of workers and understand the wider context.

ETI demonstrated the power of industry-wide collaboration in the UK when we led the cross-industry alliance that successfully lobbied the government to introduce what became the Gangmaster Licensing Act. The Gangmaser Licensing Authority (GLA) has since proved effective at reducing the worst forms of exploitation in this sector.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they need to ensure workers’ rights are a clear part of their sourcing strategies. That means thinking about the impact on workers of every sourcing and buying decision they make. It means listening to workers about what their main challenges are and educating them about their rights. It means encouraging suppliers to allow workers to organise into unions and other representative structures, so that they have the tools to shape their own destinies.

We are making progress, but it’s not yet fast enough. We all – that’s companies, trade unions, development NGOs and governments – need to work harder and smarter to raise standards across this sector. People like Mary deserve nothing less.

Julia Hawkins is Media Relations and Communications Manager at the ETI

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