Investigating the aspect of the ethics of global trade – the treatment of agricultural workers at the other end of our food supply chain
Back in 2007 we reported on the growing environmental concern over ‘food miles’ - produce arriving in UK supermarkets often travels long distances to get here, building up a big carbon footprint in the process.
In this new article, we focus on a different aspect of the ethics of global trade – the treatment of agricultural workers at the other end of our food supply chain. From prawn ‘aquaculture’ in Madagascar to Kenyan flower cultivation, a tale of fast-paced work with low wages and harsh working conditions emerges.
What are working conditions like for agri-business employees in poor nations?
What obstacles exist to improving working conditions for agri-business employees?
KS3 PowerPoint ' Fast Food Farmers (in far-away places): Case Studies of “Interdependency”
Globalisation has spawned production and consumption networks that criss-cross the Earth. Yet far-away food sourcing from distant places can be a cause for ethical and moral concern.
While low wages and harsh working conditions for sweat shop workers in the clothes industry are well-documented, primary sector employment has often received less media attention. To fill this information gap, the BBC recently sent a reporter to work undercover in several agri-business locations.
The BBC sent a young reporter to south-east Asia where a huge percentage of cheap food eaten in the UK is harvested and processed. She gained first-hand experience of:
Tuna processing in Sulawesi, Indonesia Factory work here consists of opening up each large (cooked) tuna, de-boning it and scraping out all the insides. If any of the precious tuna meat is scraped out by accident, workers are sometimes verbally abused. Extreme heat combined with the smell of gutted fish and long working hours can cause fainting. “We had to wash the fish blood and guts out of our hair. When shopping for food we were shocked to learn a day's wages had earned us nothing more than a chocolate bar.”
Rice fields of Isan, Thailand A long day’s fast-paced back-breaking work may simply consist of the endless repetitive task of pulling up young rice plants by the roots and replanting them at a lower density to help boost growth. “The work was terribly physical, 12-hour days in 38-degree heat. It got to the point where I really didn't think I could bend one more time, I felt like I was going to snap in half.”
Prawn ponds in Kalimantan, Indonesia Workers here are housed in wooden shacks. Work consists of maintaining prawn ponds – large water-filled hollows dug into the mud where mangrove forest once stood. Typical tasks include digging for clay to build ever-higher mud walls to hold growing prawns inside their ponds. Harvest time may involve an extra night shift following on after a 12-hour day of pond maintenance.
The last of these three environments is associated with a number of interconnected concerns for geographers. Major physical problems are brought about by the destruction of mangroves to produce the mud flats where prawn ponds are dug. Mangroves are areas of swampy forest found in estuaries and along marine shorelines in around 120 tropical and subtropical countries, many of them densely populated. Mangrove plants have evolved to tolerate daily tidal flooding and high salinity. Long twisting roots anchor the trees against a constantly ebbing and flowing tide.
Mangrove roots trap mud, making a natural habitat for lobster and prawn. However, prawns can be farmed more intensively if the mangrove is removed. Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is a typical site where mangrove trees have been felled, leaving a flat muddy plain studded with blue plastic-lined ponds. This is called aquaculture.
Mangrove removal creates enormous problems, including coastal erosion and loss of nursery grounds for fish - and thus biodiversity losses. It is also nature’s defence against tsunamis. The enormous ocean wave that struck the coast of Southeast Asia in December 2004 killed 230,000 people (see our archived article ‘Shock Wave’). Where still in existence, mangrove trees shielded lives and property. But in Thailand, recent conversion of mangrove habitat into prawn farms and tourist resorts close to Phuket contributed significantly to losses there.
Quotes from the BBC reporter
“We were expected to catch, harvest and produce products we take for granted in the UK, as well as eat, sleep, and exist on the same wages they live on £3 a day.”
“British consumers are massively benefiting from the cheap labour of these workers, and it's something I feel we have simply come to accept by pushing it to the back of our minds where no-one can see it.”
“It is important to say I was never once put off the food we were producing. Cleanliness and hygiene standards were paramount and I have continued to enjoy tuna, prawns, chicken and rice just as much if not more then before this experience.”
The far away food factories. BBC 18 May 2009
Kenya now grows so much produce for export – including non-food crops such as flowers - that it actually has to import some extra food for its people to eat! Yet it remains one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked at 148th place in the Human Development Index.
GDP per capita is less than one thousand dollars a year. Farm employees work hard and fast for long hours, while working conditions and pay remain desperately low. What are the root causes of these poor conditions for workers? And what, if anything, can be done to help workers in Kenya and elsewhere?
Conditions for agri-business workers in Kenya are poor. The flower farms that drain the waters of Lake Naivasha are a place where conditions are exceptionally bad. According to a report by The Guardian newspaper back in 2007, Karagita – a village where many flower workers live – has few drains, no rubbish collection service and poor housing where two whole families sometimes share a single room.
During the Valentine’s season, heightened demand for flowers in Europe results in work shifts increasing beyond their usual maximum of 15 hours a day, leaving workers utterly exhausted. Average wages are reported to be just £23 a month (The Guardian, 14 February 2007)
A similar story can be told about Kenya’s vegetable-processing sector. Around Christmas time, large UK supermarkets use the latest technology to help them regularly update the orders they place with their Kenyan suppliers. If store till receipts in the UK show a good day’s sales for a particular product in the run-up to Christmas Day, then an email is automatically sent to Kenya at midnight to increase production quotas the next day.
To the supermarkets, this makes perfect sense – they minimise financial risk for themselves by never accidentally over-ordering farm produce that might be left unsold in shops. Instead, they have introduced a just-in-time model of delivery to their supply chain.
For the workers it means living with perpetual workplace insecurity - never knowing if you will be asked to work extra shifts or to cancel your weekend plans at the last minute, should orders from the UK suddenly sky-rocket (and refusing to work these extra shifts at short notice is out of the question if you want to keep your job).
Kenya produces enormous amounts of green beans, carrots, baby corn and fresh flowers for export. The buyers - western supermarkets - aim to provide their customers with the lowest-cost goods possible. And this is the primary reason why Kenyan wages are low. But politics pays a part too. The European Union pays enormous subsidies to its own arable and dairy workers. One estimate suggests that the world’s richest countries spend around £150 billion a each year subsidising their own farmers. By another such estimate, each cow in the EU receives around £400 in subsidy each year.
Such high levels of financial support allow British farmers to sell their meat and vegetables to supermarkets for far less money than they have personally spent on their production – yet they can still make a handsome profit, thanks to the subsidies paid. Inevitably, African farmers must offer to sell their own produce at even lower prices to firms like Tesco if they want sales.
Another major problem for African farmers is over-production. In Uganda, one quarter of the population depends on coffee farming to make a living. However, production in other poor countries has flooded the market. According to the law of supply and demand, this has caused world coffee prices to fall over time. Between 1994 and 2001, revenues in Uganda fell from $433m to just $110m.
Taken from The far away food factories. BBC 18 May 2009
Taking it further activities
Fairtrade and other schemes such as those run by the Waitrose Foundation promise to return a greater proportion of final sales profits to producers. You can research this further on their websites: Fairtrade and Waitrose Foundation
The trade justice movement aims to pressure rich countries into dropping their subsidies, tariffs and quota system – and to instead create a level playing field where African, Asian and South American farmers can sell their own produce without the market system being rigged against them. Visit the website and find out more.
Worker co-operatives are organisations that encourage independent farmers to band together and establish better terms of trade within the supply chain. You can learn more on the website: Cooperative Coffees or you can search for other examples online.
Key point round-up: what are the obstacles to change?
Transnational Corporations are motivated by profits and usually seek to pay lowest possible prices for food products from developing countries
Rich countries also protect their own farmers through a variety of means, including farm subsidies and the imposition of tariffs and quotas on agricultural imports
Overproduction of some crops has pushed down market prices further
Poverty in poor countries often makes it hard for workers to protest their rights without losing their jobs to other people who will complain less
Fairtrade payments help some farmers but these need to become far more widespread in order to make a greater difference globally
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, a senior A-level and International Baccalaureate examiner, who teaches at Bancroft’s School, Essex
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