World Food Day: The time is ripe for justice
October 15th, 2021
Europe is going bananas for bananas. The 27 countries of the European Union imported over five million tonnes of this tropical fruit in 2020, up by 3% over 2019, with the majority supplied by large-scale plantations in Latin America where health and safety standards are routinely violated, and workers’ rights and trade union freedom are severely restricted.

Conditions down the banana supply chain are exacerbated by the ‘race to the bottom’. As European supermarkets pay increasingly low prices for products, they externalise risks and costs onto weaker partners further down the supply chain. Banana producing companies are thereby incentivised to relocate to countries with cheaper labour and weaker legislation to benefit from the economic savings of suppliers further cutting costs at the production level.

Vulnerable workers and farmers are hardest hit by these unfair trading practices, from poverty wages to temporary or daily contracts, which are associated with extreme job insecurity.

The environmental footprint of Europe’s top fruit is also staggering. Most banana plantations are monocultures with 97% of internationally traded bananas coming from a single variety: the Cavendish.

The problem? As monocultures are highly susceptible to diseases, pesticides are widely used. These toxic chemicals contaminate nearby water and soil, destroying habitats and endangering the health of the workers who are working in the fields while the crops are sprayed. Despite local anti-pesticide laws, a recent study by Oxfam found that banana plantations in Ecuador – the largest exporter of bananas in the world – still use carcinogenic pesticides, including those which have been banned in the EU since 2007.

Abuses remain rife where significant and largely unchecked power asymmetries constrain suppliers’ ability to respect labour rights and to minimise and mitigate their environmental impacts.

Other commodity crops – cocoa, sugar cane, tea, palm oil, beef among them – share a similar suite of human and environmental injustices. Similar to banana industry’s race to the bottom, a recent report found links between low sugar prices, forced overtime and illegal wage cuts in the Guatemalan sugar sector.

The EU is the second biggest importer of agricultural goods linked to deforestation, with beef leading the pack. European supermarkets have allegedly purchased meat from slaughterhouses involved in illegal deforestation and land grabbing in Brazil and Colombia. Similarly, the avocado industry has been linked to widespread deforestation and cartel activity in Mexico.

European companies have also been found to source their cocoa from farms in West Africa where more than two million children are trapped in child labour.

The value of products is distributed unevenly, with workers further down the chain receiving a minimal share for every dollar paid by European consumers. For instance, in the wine production industry that equates to just 1% – meaning workers earn below a living wage.

The growing complexity of global food supply chains hides such abuses, making it more difficult to hold corporations accountable.

It also obscures deeply ingrained gender inequalities, as women are overrepresented in low-wage jobs in the lower tiers, whilst earning even lower wages than their male counterparts.  In Thailand’s seafood industry, a woman employee is paid based on the amount of work completed, while her male co-workers earn stable monthly salaries.

Some workers are particularly vulnerable and face unique risks. For example, companies supplying European companies with palm oil confiscate passports of migrant workers, while women and girls working in the production of wine and citrus fruits are often denied paid maternity leave and protection, and lack access to basic sanitary services.

© Caroline Bennett / Rainforest-Action-Network.

As the world’s largest importer of bananas – and the target market for many of the food commodities described above –, the EU has a responsibility to adopt due diligence legislation that effectively prevents, addresses and remedies human rights and environmental abuses throughout global food supply chains.

This means that the forthcoming directive on sustainable corporate governance, expected in the last quarter of 2021, must explicitly cover the issue of unfair purchasing practices in supply chains as part of a corporate duty to respect human rights and the environment.

While the EU has already taken legislative action to address unfair trading practices in agricultural and food supply chains, this initiative should be expanded to include unfair purchasing practices in other sectors in order to compliment the corporate duty to undertake human rights and environmental due diligence.

The amount of leverage held by a company is key.

Leverage exists when a company has the ability to effect change in the wrongful practices of an entity that causes a harm. Companies, including food companies, must be obliged to use their economic leverage to improve conditions in global supply chains – rather than contributing to a ‘race to the bottom’ which systematically degrades them.

Not only should companies address power imbalances and purchasing decisions at all steps of the due diligence process, but they must also form part of their reporting obligations.

EU legislation should also acknowledge the existence of vulnerable groups requiring special protection as well as include provisions enabling access to justice like civil liability. These provisions will allow victims who have suffered human rights abuses – enabled by unfair trading practices in global food supply chains – to seek remedy and be compensated.

Victims currently face countless legal and procedural barriers in transnational cases against corporations. Recently, the United States Supreme Court ruled against victims of alleged child labour in the cocoa industry on procedural and jurisdictional grounds. An EU corporate due diligence law with explicit provisions on access to justice needs to address similar barriers to justice in the EU.

With campaigns engaging Europe’s youth and policy-makers for an ambitious EU supply chain law, the time is ripe for justice.