Human and labour rights violations

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Among the most common and severe issues found in the production of agricultural commodities are the lack of a living income and living wages, forced and child labour, and occupational health and safety concerns. The lack of a living income and wages can be considered one of the most fundamental issues affecting large parts of the people working in agriculture. Moreover, child labour is widespread; over 70% of instances of child labour globally occur in the agricultural sector. Matters of occupational health and safety such as the handling of pesticides are also a grave concern in the sector.

One of the most common problems in the production of labour-intensive agricultural commodities is the lack of a living income for small-scale farmers and the lack of living wages for agricultural workers. Both living incomes and living wages are commonly understood to cover the costs required for a family to afford an adequate standard of living – which is an internationally recognized human right. A living income must, on top of that, allow self-employed farmers to cover the costs of economically viable production.

Living wages and living income

The International Labour Organizaton defines a living wage as a basic human right under several conventions and recommendations (e.g. ILO Convention 95 and ILO Convention 131). As opposed to living wages, a living income is not as clearly conceptualised. While the idea as such is also considered to fall under protections of international human rights law, to date no regulations exist that would govern said right.

According to the ILO, many of the millions of people working in agriculture worldwide are affected by low pay. Although no concrete numbers exist, the ILO estimates that

“many jobs in agriculture do not ensure decent levels of income and sustainable livelihoods; agricultural workers are among the groups with the highest incidence of poverty in many countries”.

A tell-tale case of labour rights violations of this nature involves the Swiss-based trader ECOM Agroindustrial Corp. Limited (ECOM). The investigative Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Repórter Brasil scrutinized the labour conditions on coffee farms in Brazil in 2016 and found evidence of multiple abuses: Advances never paid were discounted from salaries and the employer irregularly subtracted absences from pay slips, even for rainy days, when harvesting was impossible. Because of these practices, some workers were being paid monthly amounts below half of the minimum wage. The coffee from these farms was also sold to a direct subsidiary of ECOM, the trader headquartered in Pully in the canton of Vaud.

Another, more recent, case of exploitative working conditions including the lack of living wages involves the Swiss-based banana trader Chiquita. In April 2019, the Swiss magazine Beobachter publicised severe labour rights issues on Ecuador’s banana plantations, some of which supply Chiquita. These violations involve 12-hour work days, poverty wages and employment without contracts.

© François Meienberg / Public Eye

In the production of cocoa, for example, the lack of a living income is a common issue. While this is increasingly being acknowledged both by cocoa traders and manufacturers, very few cocoa farmers are currently earning an income that comes even close to a living income and many continue to earn less than the international poverty line of USD 1.90 per day. Despite making promises about reducing poverty of small-scale farmers, even the most powerful cocoa traders such as Cargill and Olam have failed to make significant steps towards ensuring farmers along their supply chains earn a living income. This was confirmed in a 2019 report by US-based NGO Mighty Earth which analysed company commitments on living income, amongst other issues. The report concluded that not a single cocoa trader scored well and ECOM Agroindustrial, Cargill and Olam continued to demonstrate a complete lack of policy, or poor policies, relating to a living income.

© Kim Naylor

Forced Labour

Agricultural is also one of the high-risk sectors for modern slavery. In agriculture, fishery, and forestry, more than 3,5 million people work under slave-like conditions globally. The most common type of modern slavery, which is forced labour, occurs primarily in labour-intensive agricultural production and is so widespread that it can be considered endemic in the production of agricultural commodities.

For example, in 2015 the German NGO Christliche Initiative Romero and the Austrian NGO Global 2000, reported that workers on a plantation in Brazil that supplied orange juice-giant Cutrale had not been paid for several weeks. Furthermore, the debts of the workers were increasing daily due to the high costs they were being charged for transport to the plantation, accommodation and food, which was provided by the local labour contractor at extortionate prices. The workers were thus unable to leave the plantation as they were heavily indebted to the contractor and could not even afford the bus journey back home.

The authors of the report call this a modern system of slavery and they are not alone in doing so. The Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment itself has put Cutrale on their “dirty list” of slave labour. Brazil launched an anti-slavery strategy in the mid-1990s and since then authorities have been carrying out raids and engaging in a ‘name-and-shame’ strategy towards companies that have been found to be engaged in slave labour. Prosecutors in the state of São Paulo say they have investigated Cutrale’s labour practices 286 times over the past decade, compared to 71 times for Louis Dreyfus and 50 times for Citrosuco, the other two big orange juice traders. Some probes have also resulted in lawsuits and others in settlements. For example, in March 2014 a tribunal ordered Cutrale and two other companies to pay 113 million Reais (USD 43 million) in penalties and to stop irregular subcontracting of orange pickers.

Modern slavery

While modern slavery has to date not been defined by any international instrument, the term is used by the International Labour Organization as an umbrella term for forced labour and forced marriage. It is generally understood to comprise exploitative conditions in which people are trapped due to threats, violence, coercion, deception and/or abuse of power.

Forced labour is also an endemic problem in the cotton fields of Central Asia. The forced mobilisation of workers in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is a leftover from Soviet times. In both countries, currently run by authoritarian regimes cotton sales make up a significant part of their export earnings and their governments send employees of state-run companies into the fields during harvest season. Although officially “pick or pay,” given an unemployment rate of up to 50% in Turkmenistan, many employees do not dare to resist or cannot afford to pay their way of the labour. Nevertheless, Swiss-based cotton trader Reinhart trades cotton harvested in Turkmenistan. ECOM Agroindustrial closed its Turkmen office in 2017; up until then, however, also bought cotton harvested in the country.

© Dieter Telemans / Panos

Child labour

Child labour is another widespread violation regularly found in the agricultural sector. According to the ILO, child labour is “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development”.

The agricultural sector accounts for 71% of child labour globally, almost 108 million children.

This does not entail, as is sometimes misrepresented, children occasionally helping out their parents on family farms, but harmful forms of child labour as prohibited under international human rights law. Child labour has serious consequences, not only for the children concerned, but also for their families and for society as a whole. Lack of access to education clouds the prospects of children, who have little opportunity to escape this situation and to improve their lives. Moreover according to the ILO, child labour “perpetuates poverty across generations” and “[t]his lowering of human capital has been linked to slow economic growth and social development“.

© Kim Naylor

Child labour is particularly widespread in the small-scale production of certain labour-intensive agricultural commodities such as cocoa. This is endemic in the two main cocoa producing countries of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana who together account for roughly two thirds of global cocoa production. A 2015 report by Tulane University found 2.1 million children to be involved in child labour in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana alone. Swiss traders also profit from child labour in their supply chains as has been reported repeatedly. The most recent evidence stems from a 2019 TV broadcast by French channel France 2 on cocoa illegally harvested from protected areas in Côte d’Ivoire. The report found child labour to be widespread on the plantations investigated, where every third worker was a child and instances of child trafficking from neighbouring Burkina Faso were also reported. Cargill, who buys from the plantations under investigation, at first denied that it was buying cocoa from protected areas. However, Cargill was forced to admit that its traceability system had not reached these areas, and therefore that it could not fully trace the origins of its cocoa, contrary to its own claims.

One of Cargill’s biggest customers of cocoa sourced from Côte d’Ivoire is Swiss-based food giant Nestlé as was later reported in a broadcast by Swiss TV channel RTS. Moreover, a lawsuit launched in 2005 and revived in 2018 in the USA against Cargill and Nestlé was filed by former child slaves from Mali who accuse the companies of being complicit in perpetuating child slavery in Côte d’Ivoire.

© Kim Naylor

Cocoa is not the only crop affected by child labour. Amongst the more notorious is also cotton originating in Turkmenistan. Although the Turkmenistan President issued a ban on child labour in 2008, children have been documented picking cotton to this day. Sometimes children as young as twelve have to fill in for their family members says Ruslan Myatiev, director of, an NGO that , among other activities, monitors labour rights in Turkmenistan. Despite these reports, Swiss-based cotton trader Reinhart (and at least up until recently ECOM) continues to trade cotton harvested in Turkmenistan. Similarly, in Burkina Faso a 2019 report by NGO Solidar Suisse found 250,000 children to be working in the cotton harvest. The report alleges that Swiss traders Reinhart and Louis Dreyfus are profiting from this violation.

Uzbekistan was recently removed from the US Department of Labor’s (DOL) list of countries utilising child labour in cotton farming due to the moderate progress achieved over the last couple of years. The DOL no longer considers child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest a systemic issue. But civil society coalition Cotton Campaign does not agree and finds the removal to be premature.

Occupational health and safety

In terms of work-related fatalities, accidents and (chronic) occupational diseases, the agricultural sector is one of the most hazardous according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “Workers face risks that include operating heavy machinery and equipment, lifting weights and working with animals on a daily basis. They are often exposed to harsh climate conditions, excessive noise and vibration, chemicals, infectious agents, dust and other organic substances.” Pesticide use is one of the most hazardous practices in agriculture and is responsible for vast numbers of deaths by poisonings.

The most authoritative study on the frequency of poisonings from pesticide use was published in 1990 by the Word Health Organisation (WHO), according to Public Eye’s 2019 research report “Highly Hazardous profits: How Syngenta makes billions by selling highly toxic pesticides”. At that time, pesticides were estimated to cause 3 million severe acute poisonings every year, resulting in some 220,000 deaths worldwide, with intentional poisonings (suicides) representing about two thirds of the cases. Approximately 99% of these deaths occurred in low and middle-income countries. As many as 25 million agricultural workers were believed to suffer from an episode of pesticide poisoning every year. Public Eye’s report “Highly Hazardous profits also illustrated that the most dangerous pesticides, those referred to as ‘highly hazardous’, are used heavily in low- and middle-income countries despite being, for the most part, banned in Switzerland and the EU.

  • © Atul Loke / Panos
  • © Rojo Mabilin
  • © Atul Loke / Panos

In 2018, Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste, reported to the United Nations Human Rights Council that, “Exposure of workers to toxic substances can and should be considered a form of exploitation and is a global health crisis.” He continued, “[g]lobal supply chains are often implicated for failing to protect workers from toxic exposures and refusing to provide an effective remedy for individuals harmed.”

Public Eye has repeatedly documented the exposure of populations to pesticides and related health impacts, particularly in low and middle income countries, most notably in the 2019 report on the use of highly hazardous pesticides focusing on Brazil’s agri-sector. The report states that “[w]hile farmers and rural residents are exposed most frequently and directly, residues of pesticides are found everywhere: in our food, our drinking water, in the rain and in the air. In short, no one remains untouched by pesticide exposure.” Researchers are increasingly concerned about the link between pesticide exposure and high rates of chronic diseases such as cancer particularly in agroindustrial areas of the country. This was confirmed by Ada Cristina Pontes Aguiar, a medical researcher at the Federal University of Ceará in Brazil who states that “[t]here is probably not a single citizen in this country without a certain level of pesticide exposure”. Another Public Eye documentary on pesticide use on India’s cotton fields also confirmed the severe consequences of pesticides on workers detailing various cases of poisonings.

© Atul Loke/Panos

A case dating from 2017 involving the hazardous use of pesticides implicated Swiss-based banana trader Chiquita Brands International Inc. (Chiquita). The Danish media and research centre Danwatch, who specialises in investigative journalism, published a report on pesticide use on banana plantations in Ecuador, some of which supply Chiquita. They found areal spraying of pesticides without warnings to workers, and the handling of pesticides without proper protections or equipment. Among the pesticides sprayed is Paraquat, a highly hazardous pesticide forbidden in Switzerland and the EU. Ironically, Swiss-based Syngenta is one of the top producers and Paraquat is among their best-selling pesticides. When approached for comment, Chiquita would neither confirm nor deny the allegations but reportedly began an internal investigation, the results of which have not been made public.