Skip to main content

Workers’ rights in the food industry

Across the food industry, workers face a chronic lack of rights. Tea plantation workers in India are denied liveable wages. Strawberry pickers in Spain are subjected to harassment and assault. 

In this article, we outline key problems in the agricultural industry. We look at their causes and what consumers can do to help. 

A quarter of the world’s population works in agriculture. It is the world’s largest industry and worth $12 trillion every year. 

Yet, the way that we currently produce, trade and consume food has left many of the industry’s workers without even the most basic rights.

What are workers' rights issues in the food industry?

The food industry has a litany of workers’ rights abuses. These are some of the key issues that must be tackled in our food system. 

1. Poverty wages

There are 500 million smallholder farmer households globally. They produce around 30% of the world’s total food. Many smallholder farmers are amongst the poorest people in the world. Often smallholders are paid appallingly low prices for their produce. 

For example, around 80% of the world’s coffee comes from smallholder farms, almost all in the Global South. However, in many places the legacies of colonialism affect the ability for smallholder farmers to trade their crop fairly. According to Chris Ouloch from Fairtrade Africa, “After colonialism ended and coffee-growing land was returned to native producers, many of them were only left with small parcels of land.” 

Today this means they often have to sell their coffee through established multinationals. Foreign exporters will buy green coffee at a low price from the growers, and roast it abroad to sell at many times the price. This means that farmers get a fraction of the product’s final value – only a tiny portion compared to the multinational’s profits.

This is true for many food items e.g. cocoa beans into chocolate. The profit comes from additional processing which is nearly always carried out elsewhere. In contrast, some of our best buy chocolate brands make the chocolate at source.

Where food is produced on a larger scale, low incomes are often passed on to farm workers. A worker in the tea industry receives on average just 38% of the living wage. Even in the UK, the agricultural industry has by far the largest proportion of low income insecure work of any sector. 

As a result, many of those producing our food face ‘in-work poverty’. In 2018, an Oxfam report on conditions for banana workers in Ecuador – the biggest exporter of the fruit – found that most workers were living “a hand-to-mouth existence.” In 2019, Oxfam found that two-thirds of banana workers said they did not earn enough to cover basic needs. 

“Money is extremely tight. We must cut down on food to be able to pay our children’s school fees.” Yensy, wife of a worker at the pineapple plantation Finca Once, Lidl supplier quoted in a 2018 Oxfam report

Even where the legal minimum wage is respected on plantations, in packing factories or in other parts of the food supply chain, it may not be enough to provide a sufficient income.

2. Precarious work

Many of those hired to work on farms or in packing facilities are also denied secure work. They might be employed seasonally, on temporary contracts, given work only when needed, paid by the amount of food they pick, or employed via an agency rather than the workplace itself. 

In southern Spain, fruit and vegetable farms supplying to UK supermarkets employ pickers during harvest season. Workers – many of whom are migrants – will often be employed on a day-by-day basis rather than offered longer-term contracts. They wait on the side of the road to see whether they will be offered employment that day:

"It is the fifth day in a row that I've come here and no employer has shown up,” Abderrazak, a 47-year-old migrant from Morocco told DW in 2019. “It's very difficult to find work. We wait here every day from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then go home."

Precarious work comes with many issues attached, on top of its inherent insecurity: employers can take advantage to pay these workers less, force them to do unsafe jobs or offer them worse contracts. Often precarious workers won’t know their rights or terms of employment. “I have never signed a contract in my whole life,” a worker on a farm in South Africa cultivating grapes for Lidl told Oxfam in 2017. Demanding change is therefore extremely difficult.

3. Denial of union rights

Working together to demand change is essential for food workers ensuring their rights. Worker-led organisations, including unions, have improved conditions for many around the world. 

In Florida, tomato pickers organised to tackle forced labour, wage theft, sexual assault and other abuses on farms through the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Over two decades, they persuaded multiple farms to sign up to a labour code of conduct defined by the workers. Interviewed by CNN in 2018, Alejandrina Carrera, a worker on one of the farms to have signed the code, said that she was grateful for the higher wages but most of all for the change to how she’s treated: 

"You're not going to be harassed, you're not going to be insulted, you're not going to be forced to work. There's more respect now," she said.

In Colombia, strong unionisation has likewise led to better conditions for banana workers. Wages and conditions are generally far above those in any other agricultural workplace in the country, and the best in the global banana industry.

“If we didn’t have our union talking with all the companies here in Urabá, we’d still be living in misery,” one Colombian worker told Banana Link.

Yet, in many places workers are denied the basic right to organise. Workers may be isolated on farms or fishing boats. If they do manage to organise they may face repercussions: they may be illegally fired, blacklisted by all employers in the region, or harassed and forced into unsafe work.

Hosein, a farm worker in southern Spain, showed Ethical Consumer scars on his hands and wrists from work he was given after being involved in a strike. He says he was told to start cleaning the channels on the roof of the greenhouse, where his hands were cut and scratched by wires. “It’s like being in a circus. I have nothing to protect me, no helmet, no safety harness, no special shoes.” When he complained, he says, he was sanctioned. After three sanctions he can be sacked. 

In some countries, the law restricts workers from organising. For example, in Malaysia, abuses in the palm oil industry have been linked to laws that make organising strikes difficult and force strikers to return to work if the employer demands the issue goes to the Industrial Court. 

Child holding machete to cut cocoa bean pod from tree
Image from International Labor Rights Forum

4. Child labour

Globally, 60% of all child labourers between the ages of 5-17 work in agriculture. While some will work for companies, the majority (67.5%) do unpaid work on their family farms

As the ILO says, “Especially in the context of family farming, small-scale fisheries and livestock husbandry, some participation of children in non-hazardous activities can be positive as it contributes to the inter-generational transfer of skills and children’s food security. It is important to distinguish between light duties that do no harm to the child and child labour, which is work that interferes with compulsory schooling and damages health and personal development, based on hours and conditions of work, child’s age, activities performed and hazards involved.” 

Children work growing cocoa for the chocolate industry. In 2020, a report estimated that around two million children are engaged in ‘hazardous’ child labour in Côte D’Ivoire and Ghana – using machetes and toxic chemicals and carrying excessive loads. This amounts to 43% of all children living in cocoa producing areas.

Poverty is the key driver of child labour. For example in the cocoa industry, farmers resort to using their children because they can’t afford to employ adult labourers. And their poverty is linked to the low prices paid by the multinational buyers who supply our chocolate bars. Farmers will get just 11p from a £1 bar of chocolate bought in the UK – and from this have to cover the costs of cultivation and any wages as well as local taxes. 

5. Gender inequality

For women, many of these conditions can be even more severe. 

In 2018, Oxfam reported, “Women bear the heaviest burden. Overwhelmingly concentrated in the least secure and lowest paid positions in food supply chains, shouldering most of the unpaid work on family farms, and routinely denied a voice in positions of power, we show that our modern food system is built on squeezing women’s labour hardest of all.”

Women often lack access to the basic necessities that can protect agricultural workers, such as access to land and capital. For example, in India, only 13% of women own the land they work on and rarely in their own name. Yet, they provide between 60 – 80% of agricultural labour. Likewise, women are likely to have little or no capital of their own with which to pay for land rent, agrichemical inputs, and machinery used in rice farming. In many cultures, they hold much weaker positions in terms of bargaining, with those who provide loans or buy crops such as rice – often the same person, which can lead to debt entrapment. 

In agricultural industries where the majority of workers are women, the average pay amounts to just 55% of the living wage, compared to 71% in industries where men prevail, according to Oxfam. In 2016, a Lidl supplier in Ecuador reportedly cut wages for all female workers so that they were just a third of those of the male workers. 

Women also face specific gender-based abuses such as sexual harassment and assault, lack of maternity rights or mandatory pregnancy testing before being employed. 

Workers in southern Spain spoke to Al Jazeera about sexual assault that they were facing on local farms. One worker, Hadiya, stated:

“If a man likes a female employee, he harasses her. That’s just how it is.”

Another worker, Saeeda, stated, “When the manager hires a woman, he demands something in return.” 

Full online access to our unique shopping guides, ethical rankings and company profiles. The essential ethical print magazine.

6. Discrimination against migrant workers

Some employers exploit the fact that migrant workers face fewer protections. They can be entitled to fewer rights under local laws; they may be undocumented and in fear of deportation; or they may be isolated or even more dependent on their wages and therefore less likely to speak out.

The palm oil industry in Malaysia is dependent on migrant workers. One in four of those who have moved from Indonesia to Malaysia work on the plantations. Malaysia still has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention, leaving many migrants and refugees unprotected. 

In 2019, Solidar Switzerland found that, “most of the difficult and dangerous work on [palm oil] plantations is carried out by Indonesian migrant workers, of whom around 840,000 are undocumented [...] Around 50,000-200,000 children live with their parents on these plantations and help their families to survive by picking fruit and other work. The children born on plantations are often stateless, as Malaysia does not issue birth certificates to the children of migrant workers. They have no access to public schools or medical care.” The NGO traced violations back to Nestle products. 

Sadly, such abuses of migrant rights are seen around the world. 

In southern Spain around a third of those picking salad vegetables are undocumented migrants. Some workers report ‘contract blackmail’: they are illegally forced to pay their employer up to £6,000 for a contract that will allow them to apply for documented status. In 2021, El País reported the story of Lamin, a 38-year-old from The Gambia, picking  vegetables in the greenhouses: 

“In 2017 a man claiming to be a lawyer offered me a contract for picking tomatoes. It cost me 1,500 euros.” After paying, Lamin was told that his application for the contract had been rejected. He was told, “The money’s gone. If you’ve got a problem with that, call the police.”

strawberry picker
Image from Kaosenlared, strawberry picker, Huelva

7. Forced labour

Forced labour is found in many food industries, from palm oil and cocoa to meat, fish and fruit and veg. 

In 2014, the Guardian found that workers from Burma and Cambodia were being trafficked to work on Thai fishing boats. They were being “forced to work for no pay for years at a time under threat of extreme violence.” The boats were catching feed for shrimp sold in the world’s four largest retailers, including Tesco. 

Since then, multiple reports have uncovered similar allegations. “One report by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found that 59% of trafficked migrants interviewed aboard Thai fishing vessels reported witnessing the murder of a fellow worker.” 

In June 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, found that the situation in the southern Spanish strawberry industry “routinely leads to situations that amount to forced labour”. Moroccan women are recruited to do seasonal work in the region of Huelva, where they can find themselves isolated on farms, dependent on their employers, sometimes with their passports confiscated and sometimes subjected to rape or sexual assault. In the UK, at least six out of every ten strawberries eaten from January to March are likely to be from Huelva.

As these examples show, forced labour is often intertwined with other workers’ rights abuses, such as gender-based violence, discrimination against migrant workers, and the refusal of the right to unionise

Why are workers’ rights often poor in the food industry?

Many factors have led to the food system we have today and the workers’ rights abuses associated with it. 

Colonial violence and agriculture

Our food system has been directly shaped by the violence of colonialism - its land grabs, slavery and imperial control over who gets to eat. 

In India, where 10% of the UK’s tea is produced, the direct links between colonialism and modern labour abuses are clear. The region of Assam is the largest tea-producing area in the world. During the colonial period, “largely tribal people were lured from central India – where they faced disease and starvation – to become tea labourers on remote plantations in Assam.” According to Oxfam, they faced “the kind of brutality associated with the African slave trade”. 

Many tea workers in Assam today are descendants of these workers. Oxfam says that “some of the worst characteristics of the colonial tea trade have persisted, including the almost total dependence of tea workers on their employers.” 

Today, we also see the legacy of colonialism in many of our systems, and the way they disregard agricultural workers’ rights. 

Another example is the chocolate industry. During colonialism, Britain began exporting cocoa from colonies like Ghana, “buying low and selling high” to generate revenues. As in many industries, it extracted resources from the Global South in order to capture profits in the Global North. 

Poverty is known to be the key driver of workers’ rights abuses in cocoa producing countries. Yet, these days, raw cocoa is still largely exported and processed abroad. This is despite the fact that manufacturing is by far the most valuable stage in the supply chain, capturing 40% of the final price of chocoloate. 

Diagram of loop showing inequality of power between supermarkets, demand, farmers and workers
Image of inequality loop by Oxfam

Inequality of power

“Inequality of power is the root cause of labour exploitation in the food supply chain,” says Oxfam

This inequality can be seen throughout the supply chain, from farm to supermarket shelf. A small number of multinationals control our food system. For example, 

This gives a few companies enormous power and control, and takes sovereignty away from farmers.

One of the clearest examples is the control corporations have over the price of produce. In the UK, for example, supermarkets have repeatedly squeezed milk producers. Today, most farmers are paid less for their milk than the cost of production. Likewise, supermarkets often deliberately sell bananas at a loss, meaning they demand lower and lower prices from producers. From 2000-2014, consumer prices for bananas fell by over 50% in the UK although the living costs in major production countries were on the rise. 

Commodification of food

With the rise of industrial farming over the last century, food is now treated as a commodity to be traded for profit. As the squeeze on farmgate prices shows, the drive for profits demands ever lower costs on farms, fisheries and smallholdings. In real terms, this translates to a race-to-the-bottom in terms of workers' rights. 

Oxfam says

“We know it doesn’t have to be this way. The global food industry generates billions in revenues every year, but the rewards are increasingly skewed towards the powerful. Our evidence shows that supermarket giants are capturing an increasing share of the money their customers spend at the checkout, while just a small and declining fraction reaches those who produced their food.

“The resulting inequality is hard to fathom. It would take a woman working in a shrimp processing plant in Thailand more than 5,000 years to make the average annual salary of a top executive at a supermarket in the US, and over 1,700 years to match the UK’s. Just 10% of the cash returned to shareholders of the biggest three US supermarkets in 2016 would be enough to lift more than 600,000 workers in the Thai shrimp sector to a living wage.”

Increased corporate control of food system is driving climate crisis

War on Want’s new report ‘Profiting from Hunger: Popular Resistance to Corporate Food Systems’ reveals how increasing corporate control of the industrialised global food system – which it says is responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions – is driving the climate crisis and the impoverishment of millions across the Global South, while making vast profits for a handful of corporate monopolies.

Sabrina Espeleta, Senior Programmes Officer at War on Want, said:

'The global food system produces enough food to feed the world twice over – yet almost 800 million people globally are going hungry. Food and land are human rights and cannot be treated as simply ‘commodities’ and ‘assets’ for corporate profit. Peasant farming is already feeding most of the world – it produces the main source of nutrition for 70% of the global population, on less than 30% of arable land. Peasant farming works, and if applied more widely could grow a much larger percentage of the world’s food, solving both global hunger and malnutrition. Food sovereignty offers a practical solution to feeding the world, reducing poverty and inequality, and protecting the Earth’s biodiversity.'

Major subsidies, loans and international policies have also ushed Global South countries towards export-led agriculture – an important source of hard currency, needed to access international markets and pay off foreign debts. Large fertile swathes of land are now devoted to producing cash crops for supermarkets and consumers in the Global North. North African countries no longer grow enough wheat to feed their own populations, instead growing berries, tomatoes and other crops for export to the EU and UK – while relying on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine.

Find out more and take action

Ethical Consumer tracks the workers’ rights record of major food companies

Through our ratings and rankings of companies, Ethical Consumer tracks the workers’ rights record for major food companies in the UK. 

Workers’ Rights

Our Workers’ Rights rating looks at the track record of companies and their supply chain. We track news stories and major NGO reports to ensure that abuses are captured and reflected on our score table. In 2018, for example, Mars Inc. was taken to court over child labour in its supply chain. It therefore lost half a mark under Worker’ Rights in our ranking.

For sectors like cocoa, we also have special Workers’ Rights ratings focusing on key issues. All chocolate companies are expected to have policies on preventing child labour: those which don’t lose marks. 

Supply Chain Management

As well as looking at abuses that have been reported, we examine the steps that companies are taking to prevent violations taking place. We look at around 20 key indicators of what they’re doing in their supply chains. 

For example, do they have a code of conduct that demands freedom of association and fair pay? Do they have a complaints line for workers to report abuses? 

Companies receiving our Middle or Worst rating for Supply Chain Management lose a half and whole mark respectively. 

Positive marks

We also believe that it’s important to recognise companies that are doing things differently and trying to make real change. 

For example, in the cocoa industry, some companies are selling chocolate that is ‘value added at source’. This means that the cocoa has been processed in the country where it is grown, ensuring much more of its final value is held in that country. This is a crucial step for tackling the root causes of poverty and the workers’ rights abuses it drives. 

Chocolate that is value added at source receives a full positive Product Sustainability mark. If the company is only selling value added at source, it also receives a pull Company Ethos mark.

Using our tables

Our score tables in shopping guides can help you identify which companies to buy from and which companies to boycott. Often, those companies with the highest overall score will also be those doing most to respect workers’ rights. By clicking on the ‘People’ section for each company, you can also zoom in on our Workers’ Rights and Supply Chain Management ratings and find out specifically what lies behind the scores. 

What can consumers do about workers’ rights?

1. Pressure your supermarket to change

There are lots of big bad players in the food industry: supermarkets are certainly up there. All of the major supermarkets in the UK lost marks under Workers’ Rights in our supermarkets guide. Over recent decades, they have driven down prices for farmers thereby squeezing workers’ rights. 

Contacting your supermarket can be a real way to push for change. You could contact them on a specific issue. (Check out our campaign demanding better Workers’ Rights for migrants picking their fruit and vegetables in southern Spain.) Or you could contact them to say you want to see better standards across the board. 

2. Buy from more ethical brands

In lots of sectors, smaller ethical companies are popping up who are really doing something different. You can find our Best Buys listed in our guides to chocolate, tea, coffee, bananas, and supermarkets – all sectors where change is desperately needed when it comes to Workers’ Rights. 

Fairtrade International ingredient logos
Fairtrade logos

3. Look for Fairtrade

Fairtrade products have to meet certain standards when it comes to workers’ rights, such as freedom of association and no discrimination. 

Perhaps most importantly Fairtrade offers a minimum price to producers for their produce. If prices in the global market drop below this level farmers selling to Fairtrade distributors or companies can be sure they still get a fair price for their bananas and won't slip into poverty or make a loss on each box sold.

4. Buy from a shop you can ask about standards

Some smaller retailers (like the alternative brands listed in our supermarkets guide) are taking steps to ensure that the products they sell respect workers’ rights. Have a conversation with your local shop to find out what they’re doing. Even if it’s not much, you may help put workers’ rights on their agenda. 

By buying from your local store, you’re also avoiding the supermarket – a good decision when it comes to changing the root causes of many violations. 

5. Pressure the government to improve standards

For real change to happen, our laws need to change. Core Coalition and others are campaigning for “a new law to hold business, finance and the public sector to account when they fail to prevent supply chain human rights abuses and environmental harms.” Sign the petition at 

Buying better food in a cost of living crisis

The question of how much we should be spending on food is an extremely difficult (and ultimately individual) one.

In the 1950s, people spent around a third of their income on food, compared to about 10% today. This fall is in part linked to the fact that supermarkets have squeezed on prices, a squeeze that is undoubtedly being felt in producer countries. 

On the other hand, we all have a right to affordable, healthy and culturally appropriate foods – and if we start demanding that we all pay more for our weekly shop, it is undoubtedly those on the lowest incomes who lose out. 

Ethical foods are often criticised for being expensive. For many items (such as Fairtrade chocolate) this is likely to be true, as they reflect the real costs of production. It’s important to work out individually what we can afford. It might be that cost-free actions like writing to your supermarket or signing a petition are more realistic at the moment – especially with so many costs rising. 

An ethical basket won’t, however, always cost more. For example, meat and dairy are often expensive compared to plant-based proteins. One way to balance out the costs of an ethical shop is to buy a bit less of these (a great climate action too) and use the money you save to switch to Fairtrade tea and bananas. It’s also worth looking for cheaper local options: for example, veg boxes can be very good value particularly in summer and autumn months when UK farms are in harvest. 

We have many food and drink guides on our website where you can read more about the ethical and environmental issues involved, from biscuits and chocolate, to tea, coffee, rice and bananas.

You can find these from the food and drink menu tab at the top, or via the food and drink section, and some are linked to below.