The second year of Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign exposes further human suffering in supermarket supply chains.
The next time you step foot in a grocery store, consider this: Millions of men and women who produce the food on supermarket shelves face exploitation and indignity, working grueling hours in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for poverty wages. And too often, workers are denied the right to demand better conditions or are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs.
As part of Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign, now in its second year, we interviewed workers throughout the food system to learn the extent of these supplier practices. What we discovered is that worker abuse happens everywhere—to fruit pickers and packers in Brazil, to workers on tea plantations in India, and finally, to sweet potato farms here in the United States. With mounting evidence of human suffering behind the products in their stores, the time has come for US supermarkets, especially Whole Foods, to address these issues.
Read on to learn more about the conditions the people harvesting and processing the food we buy are forced to endure, and use your consumer power to tell supermarkets, including Whole Foods, to improve conditions for food workers.
Agriculture is the only life Robson Crusoe Freire Lima and Cícera Freire da Silva know. The couple and their three children live in Curaçá, Brazil, and in Curaçá, there are only two types of industry: agriculture and fishing. Robson grew up accompanying his mother as she worked on grape and onion farms, and Cícera remembers working with her mother on tomato and onion farms.
Robson, 32, works at the packing house of a mango and grape production company in the São Francisco Valley. Cícera, 28, is a safrista—a temporary worker—packing mangos for domestic and foreign markets. Her job lasts between three and four months a year.
In the months they both work, they’re forced to leave their eldest son, Robson Jr., 10, in charge of his brothers, Ricardo, 8, and Rodrigo, 6.
Cícera says it “breaks her heart” to leave them on their own all day, but there are no childcare facilities available, nor do they have money to pay for it. “We are very afraid that something may happen to them,” she says.
But she can’t afford to stay home. Robson's monthly salary is Brazilian Real $1.041,00, or $250 USD, which is just over a minimum wage. Last year, when Cícera worked, the family’s income doubled. Even still, money is tight.
“They [the employers] think with this amount of money one can support a family, but you can't,” says Cícera. “I don't even know when we last went to a party to have fun, [or took] the kids to a park. Because if we go, when tomorrow comes, what will we give them? If we spend money today, there is nothing tomorrow.”
“We [have a] saying that the rural worker only eats 15 days,” adds Robson. “With the amount [of money] we earn, we can't spend the rest of the month. The bills come, medicine comes. …”
And there’s nothing left over to invest in the house. Until they can save enough money to buy materials, it’s a work in progress: The walls lack plaster, the floor has no covering, there are no windows in the couple’s bedroom, their bathroom has no door, and the three children share a bed.
“We only have money to eat,” says Cicera. “When the end of the month comes, we have to borrow to avoid starvation.”
“I feel sad about my salary,” Robson laments. “I wish I could give a more dignified life to my family …. It's sad to come home, look at your wife, your wife looks at you, and says, 'Look, there's nothing [no food] to give them today.’”
When Cicera works, life becomes more manageable. “When she worked, we were able to buy a window and a door,” says Robson. He believes that if she had permanent work, the family wouldn’t have to worry about every last cent.
“It's a relief because it gives us a more decent life,” says Cícera. “When I worked, I liked it. But I never had a chance to stay longer, to have my contract signed.”
For over a year now, she has been trying to get long-term work, but there isn’t any available. “If I worked there [permanently], this house wouldn’t be the way it is,” she says. “It would be plastered, already with doors, windows, [and a] gate.”
The couple wants to see their house completed and enjoy a day of leisure with their children. “My dream is just to give my family a decent life. To finish my house and be able to travel someday like on holidays …,” says Robson.
Most of all, the couple want to be treated as well as the fruit they help bring to our grocery stores, such as Whole Foods.
“We go out at dawn, we risk our lives on these roads,” says Robson. “You enter an area full of pesticides, fertilizers. That is harmful to our health. It may be good for the fruit, but for [our] health it is not.
“The mango is more valued than the worker,” he continued, “but if worker does not work, there’s no fruit. There’s no food.”
Tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, second only to water. And yet, the workers who pick tea leaves—like those in Assam, India—earn less than one cent from each dollar you spend on tea in grocery stores.
Oxfam spoke to Maria*, 38, who lives and works on a tea plantation in Assam that employs more than 800 permanent workers. After a full day picking tea leaves in the bagaan, or tea garden, she told us that she recently needed medical attention for her eye but doesn’t trust the plantation hospital, because it lacks proper health and sanitation facilities and is inadequately staffed.
“We work in the tea garden all day,” she said. “If someone is sick, they cannot rest at the hospital because there is no bed and they have no food to give to their patients. They send everyone to the civil hospital.”
Tuberculosis, malaria, hypertension, and anemia are common ailments among workers, yet plantation hospitals don’t have the staff or medicines to handle these cases. Doctors are only available for a few hours out of the week; the rest of the time, the compounder [a position similar to a pharmacist] takes care of patients. “If we don't buy our own medicines and depend on them, we will surely die,” Maria said.
For most workers, attempting to get medical care is like fighting a losing battle. Permanent workers are referred to a distant civil hospital that requires travel, where they can choose to pursue treatment and get reimbursed months later. But most workers can’t afford to pay out-of-pocket fees in the first place. Temporary workers aren’t reimbursed for consultations or medications, so they’re on their own.
When a permanent worker, like Maria, calls in sick, they must show up to the hospital twice a day to prove they’re ill, otherwise they won’t receive paid sick leave. If they fail to do so—and many can’t because either the hospital is too far away or they’re too sick to go—they lose a day’s wages. Temporary workers simply don’t get paid if they get sick and miss a day’s work.
Maria also told us that while women form the majority of the tea garden workers, there are no considerations for working mothers.
“With poor or no Anganwadi [child care center] and no care at home, women workers have to get back to work with their infants to the field or have their older children take care of the younger ones,” Maria said.
This is dangerous for both the mother and the child. Babies are exposed to the heat and rain, and with no resting time or feeding place for the workers, children can go unfed for hours—which leads to malnourishment. Not being able to rest and eat well also takes a physical toll on mothers.
India’s Plantation Labour Act of 1951 states that plantations should provide toilets and urinals—separate for men and women—hospitals equipped to care for workers, and drinking water for all. In reality, there are no toilets designated for women or men in the garden in which Maria works, and there is no running water.
Women have two options if they need to go to the bathroom: Hold it for the entirety of their eight-hour shift, which can cause urinary tract infections, or go in the thick tea bushes. The thick stubs of the tea plant, leeches, uneven surfaces, broken bottles, pesticide, trenches between plots, and no supply of water makes the latter option unsafe and unhygienic.
It gets worse when women have their periods. “Women have to continue working through the sweat and rain without changing sanitary napkins,” reports Maria. “Women work through this discomfort and end up … vulnerable to health risks.”
While there is no running water on Maria’s tea plantation, workers receive one round of salted tea and one round of plain cold water during the day. The serving of salted tea, a colonial practice aimed at combatting dehydration, has resulted in workers experiencing a whole range of diseases, including hypertension and heart ailments. Many plantations have switched to serving plain tea, which some workers use to wash their hands and feet, and clean out their lunch boxes.
Ramón* and Pedro* came to the United States from Mexico in April with visions of a land of opportunity: bountiful fields that would provide hard but satisfying work—and would help supplement their families’ incomes back home.
They were recruited in Mexico by agricultural contractors who took them through the process of applying for H-2A visas, which allow employers in the US to bring in foreign workers for temporary agricultural jobs. “We wanted to come to the US to work legally through a visa,” says Ramón. “We are looking for the American dream that many Mexicans hope to achieve.”
The recruiters promised that all costs the men would incur to get to the US—visa application fees, transportation, food, and lodging costs—would be reimbursed by their employer. So Ramón and Pedro scrounged up about 25,000 pesos each (around $1,300 USD) to secure their spots. “It’s not an amount you can easily come up with,” Pedro shared. “I had to borrow it, and now I am indebted.”
They had to pay for their own transportation to North Carolina, another $170, which was all they had on them. They expected to be paid back by their employer, a farm that supplies sweet potatoes to Whole Foods. But when they got to the farm, they were told there would be no reimbursement.
The wages Ramón and Pedro earn aren’t going to help them recover those costs anytime soon. Instead of an hourly wage, they receive a piece rate of $1 per bucket of produce picked, which means that in order to earn $100 a day, they have to put in enough hours, sometimes skipping breaks or meals, to fill 100 buckets. But some days there’s not enough food to harvest, so they earn only a few dollars.
Their employers also deduct money from their wages for things like food. “We have to pay $70 every week [for meals], and I think it’s not worth it,” reports Pedro. “They only give us two meals a day, and we don’t get any breakfast. Working the fields is tough. It’s tiring and hot.”
If they need tools or protective gear, the men have to buy those themselves. “All jobs should provide tools and equipment,” says Ramon. “The tools you use at work, you have to buy yourself, and it really isn’t fair that this has to come from our own pockets. [Employers] are supposed to provide this for you.”
If they need to use the bathroom in the field, they must walk about half a mile to get to one, otherwise they have to hold it or use the bushes.
Ramón and Pedro have been working with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), Oxfam’s partner in North Carolina, to claim their rights.
“I always think, why is it that agricultural workers make less than other workers, if it provides people with their daily bread?” asks Ramón. “We all eat every day thanks to agricultural workers, and I would like for our work to be more appreciated and to be paid a little more.”
*Name changed to maintain privacy