Bitter oranges: how Brazilian orange pickers do hard graft for Swiss agricultural trader LDC

Working conditions that are hazardous to health, informal employment, pay that does not provide a living wage: Public Eye observed all these abuses on orange plantations in Brazil that supply the Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC). The coronavirus crisis further exacerbates the already precarious conditions in which the pickers in LDC’s supply chain work.

Together with NGO Repórter Brasil, we investigated behind the high fences surrounding orange plantations in the interior of the São Paolo region – plantations that supply oranges to agricultural trader LDC, which operates out of Switzerland. The working and living conditions of the pickers, who mostly come from the particularly poor northern part of Brazil, are precarious: they range from non-compliance with the statutory minimum wage, to an opaque and exhaustion-prone remuneration system, as well as undignified accommodation. “Everyone saw the smoke caused by the increasing deforestation in the Amazon. Unfortunately, violating workers’ rights is less visible than smoke caused by burning forests.” the Brazilian Prosecutor of the Federal Ministry of Labour of Araraquara commented to us.

LDC, the world’s third largest orange juice producer, bears some responsibility for this. Since the 90s, the agricultural trader with its operational headquarters in Geneva, has become increasingly involved in the cultivation of oranges and asserts significant influence over production conditions. Previously a pure trader, LDC now manages 38 plantations with over 25,000 hectares in Brazil alone. Additionally, LDC purchases oranges from numerous suppliers. While the company prides itself in its glossy reports with statements such as: “we take our responsibility for the well-being of our entire workforce […] very seriously”, the numerous testimonials of pickers who we interviewed in their accommodation – despite LDC’s attempts to dissuade them from talking to us – paint a different picture.

The nearly 200 violations of labour law in the Brazilian citrus sector, which according to local authorities LDC has committed since 2010, are testament to this shortcoming. What is not officially registered, however, is the systematic violation of the internationally recognised right to an adequate standard of living. Some pickers working for LDC suppliers reported to us that they do not even earn the statutory minimum wage equivalent to some CHF 190 per month. By its own account, LDC states that the minimum wage is not undermined on its own plantations. However, no one there earns a living wage, not even through the various “productivity bonuses”. According to the Brazilian institute for statistics and socio-economic studies, it would take over four times the minimum wage to provide for the daily needs of a four-person family.

The government’s move to declare orange production an “essential activity” in a decree on coronavirus will hardly improve the situation – quite the opposite. The wage negotiations for the main harvesting season about to get underway will barely even lead to the overdue 5% increase in line with inflation. In comparison to 2019, real wages are in fact lower. Due to social distancing rules on plantations, fewer pickers will be recruited than in past years, further increasing the pressure to be productive. Seasonally employed pickers at LDC are also denied access to the company’s healthcare benefits.

To improve this situation, LDC must conduct appropriate due diligence and ensure that its suppliers respect at least the statutory minimum wage. In the medium term, all pickers need to be provided with a living wage. In addition, all companies domiciled in Switzerland like LDC must carry out due diligence as anchored in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and as called for by the Responsible Business Initiative.

For more information see here or here or contact:

Oliver Classen, Media Director, 044 277 79 06,

Silvie Lang, Soft Commodities expert, 044 277 79 10,

Download photos and graphics