15 October 2019

New evidence of widespread human and labour rights violations in our food chains

Based on hundreds of interviews with workers on tea estates in Assam, India, surveys of workers on grape, melon and mango farms in Brazil and on farms and plantations in countries including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, the Philippines and the US, Oxfam produces new evidence on the fact that human suffering is a common ingredient of our food.

Research commissioned by the International NGO demonstrates that people who produce the food we eat are often the victims of systematic economic exploitation and suffer from a denial of their most basic rights.

The “relentless drive to cut costs and maximise profits”, cutthroat competition and the need to offer attractive prices for consumers are the main drivers of the dramatic situation made of abuse and poverty found in the field by Oxfam-commissioned researchers.

Ultra-low salaries and extremely long working days are the common lot of the workers that produce the exotic food products that are proposed to us in our supermarkets and that many of us relish. As a result, workers only get a ridiculously small proportion of the price consumers will ultimately pay: estimates by Oxfam-commissioned research show for Assam tea that while tea brands and supermarkets captured 67% to 94% of the price paid by consumers, labour remuneration was somewhere between 1% and 4% only!

These figures confirm earlier analytical results [see an example of price structure, in French] and suggest that paying a living wage to workers would not impact much the margins made by retail companies or the prices paid by consumers. It is recalled here that a living wage is a wage that provides sufficient income for the worker and family to satisfy their basic needs (lodging, food, clothing, health, education, energy, social protection…), earned while respecting the legally authorised limit number of working hours (a maximum of 48 hours per week according to ILO conventions) [see here comparison between minimum wage and living wage in a selection of countries in Asia].

Harsh working conditions and lack of sanitary and of safe drinking water impact on the health of workers, as was found in India where cholera and typhoid were found to be frequent. In Brazil exposure to pesticides made workers develop skin diseases and allergies.

Women labourers “are often in the lowest paid and most labour-intensive jobs, and regularly face gender-based discrimination and sexual abuse in the workplace”. This confirms reports on the situation prevailing in the strawberry industry in Spain [read] and in Unilever tea plantations of Kenya [read].

According to Oxfam, the food produced under the intolerable conditions they describe end-up in Aldi, Lidl, Costco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco supermarkets, among others. Based on a careful analysis of each supermarket policies and practices, actual behaviour that protects workers, farmers and women, Oxfam gave each supermarket a total score out of 100%. The results found give a devastating picture of the situation: worst performers are Jumbo and Kroger (0%) and Aldi (1%). Lidl scores only 5% while best performers are Tesco (23%), Sainsbury’s (18%) and Walmart (17%), these three latter companies being also those whose performance is more rapidly increasing [read].

Pressured by campaigns organised by various NGOs and groups, supermarket firms have started to improve, but experience shows that there is still a wide gap between statements and commitments made and actual practice. Unfortunately, so far, the Oxfam scoreboard does not cover all major supermarket companies and it is hoped that the list will be extended soon to include other major players including big French players such as Carrefour, Casino or Leclerc.

Reaction is also occurring at the policy level, the EU, for example, passing in 2019 new rules banned unfair trading practices by supermarkets and large buyers [read]. But more needs to be done and a coalition of civil society organisation has made “A call for EU human rights and environmental due diligence legislation” earlier this month (October 2019).

At, we believe that in addition to campaigns and changes in policies and regulations, a more responsible behaviour of consumers will oblige companies to improve the way they operate. For this, consumers should choose to buy produce of those companies that show signs of improvement, avoid those who persist in intolerable practices and, whenever possible, opt for consuming certified fair trade products.

On this latter point, it is encouraging to note that consumers have been regularly increasing their purchase of fair trade products. In France for example, the volume of sold fair trade products has almost doubled between 2015 and 2018 [read in French].


To know more :

  1. Wilshaw, R. and R. Willoughby, Workers’ rights in supermarket supply chains - New evidence on the need for action, Oxfam, 2019.

  2. Commerce équitable France, Les chiffres du commerce équitable, 2019 (in French).

  3. Maetz, M., Octuor, Tome 1, Troisième tableau : Le monde exploité, novel providing a description of the work and living conditions of a worker in the garment industry in South-East Asia, Vérone Éditions, 2019 (in French).

  4. Willoughby, R. and T.Gore, Ripe for Change: Ending human suffering in supermarket supply chains, Oxfam, 2018.

  5. Living Wage versus Minimum Wage, Asia Floor Wage, Webpage, 2014.

  6. Largo V. and A.Wasley, PG Tips and Lipton tea hit by 'sexual harassment and poor conditions' claims, The Ecologist, 2011.

Selection of past articles on related to the topic:

  1. Spain: strawberries with a strong taste of sex and pesticides… 2019.

  2. Borders in the global economy - Control of labour, mobility of goods and capital, preservation of profits and exacerbation of inequalities, 2018.

  3. Opinion: Fair_price.pdf, by Ruud Bronkhorst, 2017.

  4. Our food system: some reasons for hope… 2017.

  5. The dark side of chocolate: a comparative study of ‘conventional’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘fair trade’ cocoa value chains, 2016.

  6. How the large multinational corporations in charge of our agri-food system try to earn themselves an ethical, pro-development image, 2015.


Last update:    October 2019

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