Let’s Say No to Food Stained with Human Suffering

Gabriela Bucher

You may be a woman sorting seafood in Thailand. You may be one of the many key workers keeping the food industry going in challenging circumstances. You may be a shopper at a supermarket such as Walmart, Tesco or Aldi — perhaps one of the many who, like me, was grateful for the chance to see our community while shopping for groceries during lockdown.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how interwoven we are as a human family — be it relying on each other to stay safe or realizing that our economies depend on one another.

The global system of food has, too, brought us all together like no other. But it is not a system humanity participates in equally.

Oxfam’s new report — Not In This Together — tells a story of a food system built upon inequality: in which a few winners are being prized at the expense of so many losing out.

Consider the owners of supermarkets — supermarkets that hold outsized influence over global food supply chains, upon which hundreds of millions of people’s livelihoods depends.

Major publicly-listed supermarkets from the Netherlands, UK and US upped their dividend pay-outs to shareholders by an average of 123 percent, from $10 billion in 2019 to $22.3 billion, during the first eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These supermarkets, Ahold Delhaize from the Netherlands, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco from the UK, and Albertsons Companies, Costco, Kroger and Walmart from the US, paid out nearly all (an average of 98 percent) of their net profits to owners and shareholders.

Now contrast that with the workers and the farmers within the supermarkets’ supply chains across the world, who continued to provide produce and keep supply chains moving. Think particularly of the women who dominate the most insecure and lowest paid jobs and who saw pervasive and systemic exploitation and their rights continue to be violated.

Oxfam interviewed many of them. Here are stories from a Thai fish market and the Minas Gerais coffee producing region in Brazil — and we established supply chain linkages between these Brazilian coffee farms as well as Thai seafood producers and many Dutch, German, UK and US supermarkets. We should know more about what the people behind the food we buy off the supermarket shelves face.

Mi Chan*, 30, is an ethnic Mon worker from Myanmar, who was eight months pregnant when we spoke to her and worked in the Talay Thai Market, Samut Sakhon. She had to pay 1,500 baht ($46 US dollars) for a COVID-19 test just to be able to live in the community — as it was required that all residents were tested for COVID-19. That market, home to majority daily wage earners like Mi Chan, was closed for weeks that hit their income hard.

We interviewed coffee workers in the Minas Gerais area of Brazil, such as Maria*. She had to leave northern Minas as a result of drought and hunger and the slave-like conditions in a southern Minas Gerais coffee plantation during harvest time. She was not receiving fair wages and was having to pay for her own protective equipment, clothes, food and transportation. In the field, there was no place to eat or even a toilet. She worked from 5am to 6pm in extremely cold weather.

“There was no advantage in that place. Only they [plantation owners] had advantages because we picked lots of coffee. There was no profit for us,” said Maria.

Time and time again we heard the same story. The workers and farmers interviewed by Oxfam did not earn a living income or wage — the monthly amount of money needed for a decent life — while some didn’t even earn a monthly minimum wage. Maria paid for the expenses she had on the farm with installments received from the government’s family assistance program.

But change is possible. Through our engagement with supermarkets, we have seen important first steps taken by some of them, such as Tesco’s gender policy that outlines specific actions it will take, like increasing formal ways to support women to stand up for their rights in the workplace. Or Walmart’s commitment to sourcing from women-owned businesses. But there remains far more to be done across the sector to improve the lives of women workers.

Our message to supermarkets is to take their record sales as an opportunity to create a more sustainable and resilient global food supply chain — to genuinely put hard policies and action behind respecting women across their supply chains.

Practically that means identifying and tackling human rights violations, including those resulting from COVID-19, and ensure living wages are paid across their supply chains.

It means gaining a full understanding of the roles that women play in their supply chains, and the issues they face — developing comprehensive gender policies to tackle them.

Is it radical to suggest that in age of a billionaire bonanza, workers and farmers should earn enough to not go hungry and live safely?

Regulation is starting to drive change. Gender pay gap legislation in the UK has made companies more aware of their shortcomings. Upcoming national legislation in the Netherlands and Germany will incentivize companies to attract more women into higher positions in their own operations. However, there is a lot more to be done to address the systemic gender inequalities, in particular at the other end of the supply chain in low-income countries.

Human rights due-diligence legislation is under discussion in Europe, which could provide a legal framework for companies to respect women’s human rights.

We need better public policy: in which governments put a stop to companies paying excessive shareholder pay-outs at the expense of human rights. And we need the right incentives too: that advance the growth of more equitable business models that challenge shareholder domination.

We, too, as consumers must play our part to expose, to lobby and to campaign for real change, that we know supermarkets respond to.

The pandemic has shown us that we must rethink the unjust systems of old anew — systems that we are all a part of. Let it now lead to ending the human suffering behind the food that we find on the supermarket shelves.

*Workers names have been changed for anonymity and protection purposes.

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.