Most severe issues related to agricultural production and trade

© Pascal Maitre / Panos
The expansion of large-scale, high-input, industrial agriculture on the one hand and the emergence of global value chains on the other increasingly lead to hazardous and exploitative working conditions. This is of particular concern in low-income countries, where the agricultural sector is still a key employer and where large parts of the workforce toil under dire conditions producing labour-intensive crops destined for the world market, such as bananas, cocoa, coffee, cotton, or oranges. Other significant malpractices that regularly occur in the production and trade of agricultural commodities are tax dodging, corruption, and doing business with politically exposed persons.

Overall, the problems of the agricultural commodity industry and its traders are diverse and well documented. The most common and severe issues include the lack of a living income and living wages, forced and child labour, occupational health and safety hazards, or the destruction of livelihoods through deforestation and land grabbing.

Hilal Elver, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food states: “Agricultural workers, including women, children and migrants and plantation workers, are increasingly faced with low wages, part-time work, informality, and a lack of social and economic protections. They are further faced with dangerous working conditions owing to regular exposure to pesticides and to long hours spent in extreme temperatures without adequate access to water.”

© Edgard Garrido / Reuters

Agricultural workers, however, are not the only ones in today’s global food system who are denied a decent remuneration for their hard labour. Self-employed small-scale farmers producing for the world market, such as cocoa or coffee farmers, often earn far below a living income. The meagre income of farmers leads, in many cases, to human rights violations as farmers are forced to cut costs, which can include relying on child labour or by cutting corners on safety precautions at work.

In addition to these violations, other severe issues such as the exploitation of migrant workers, human trafficking, environmental pollution, diseases specific to crops such as green tobacco sickness, as well as gender discrimination and violence have also been documented frequently in the production of agricultural commodities. Gender discrimination, often coupled with multiple other forms of discrimination, disproportionally affects women. Generally, they are even more exposed to low wages than men and are overrepresented in unpaid, seasonal, and part-time employment. Moreover, they are generally disadvantaged when it comes to landownership and thus have little access or control over the means of production (input, finances, technology, and markets).

Albeit harder to identify and to prove, the risk of tax dodging, corruption and deals with politically exposed persons are also high in agricultural commodity trading. Despite these actual and potential negative impacts, both leading firms and policy makers remain largely silent in the face of repeated human rights violations connected to the industry. Thus, the agricultural commodity sector and the business models of traders are in urgent need of being scrutinised on a larger scale.