The human cost of a bargain: unlivable wages, back-breaking work

by Alisa Tang | @alisatang | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 14 July 2014 12:08 GMT

Tomatoes are sorted during the first harvesting of the year at a greenhouse in the refugee settlement west of Tbilisi, Georgia, April 12, 2012. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

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How far are we willing to exploit a human's life and dignity for a bargain?

Some abuses against modern-day slaves are so egregious that they stir public outcry.

Others, however, are subtler and harder to spot – unlivable wages, long hours – and when these abuses are part of the global supply chain, it begs the questions: are we willing to sacrifice a human’s life and dignity for a bargain?

Must food and clothes in Europe and the United States be so cheap that the migrant workers picking, processing or sewing them on another continent cannot afford their own groceries?

The latest reports I received on the human cost of a bargain – focusing on tomatoes in Morocco and pineapples in the Philippines – came from Fairfood International, an Amsterdam-based organisation researching wages and work conditions in the global food supply chain and pressing corporations for better practices.

Labourers are not forced into such work  - there is a queue of people willing to undertake the low-paid, back-breaking tasks, and those who don’t like the conditions can leave or face the axe, Fairfood found.

In Morocco, Lahcen Moski earns 60 dirhams (5.30 euros) for each day that he toils two metres off the ground on a ladder in a tomato greenhouse in the central town of Ait Amira. It is not enough to make ends meet.

"We have to buy our groceries on credit because it’s not enough at all. What is 60 dirhams going to do for your livelihood? When you think of the children, of clothes, of food, or even to try to save for something bigger, or medicines, it’s nothing," he said in an interview with Fairfood.

He said the poisonous pesticides make workers ill, and many pass out and fall off the ladders.

"They say that if we don’t like it when they spray, then we can go home, but then there's no money to get bread for the children. You work because you need that loaf of bread. So we just put our heads down, keep quiet and keep working."


Of the 100,000 labourers in Morocco’s tomato sector – migrants from around the country – 70 percent are women, according to Fairfood, and 91 percent of tomatoes exported from Morocco end up in the European Union.

"That means if you live here in Europe and you eat tomatoes in winter, there’s a high chance they are from Morocco, often produced under unfair working conditions," Fairfood executive director Anselm Iwundu said in one of its videos about Morocco.

"That is why, here at Fairfood, we decided to target European retailers. They have the power and the responsibility to ensure the fair and just treatment of workers in supply chains."

Moroccan farmers, meanwhile, have been unable to improve working conditions.

"When you join the union … you become aware of your rights, but the company doesn’t like that... So they try to fire you to make problems for you," Moski said. "If only the wages were sufficient then the hard work wouldn’t matter so much. But the wages are so low, our health suffers, there is no security in our jobs, in our future."


Fairfood’s documentary from the Philippines found similar problems among the 40,000 pineapple workers in Mindanao, about three-quarters of whom are on temporary contracts, meaning job insecurity and pay based on difficult-to-fill quotas.

"If I did not reach the target, I did not get my full pay," Luzviminda Canoog, former pineapple plantation worker, said in the Fairfood video.

"After finishing work, my bones would ache. I would be exhausted. The foreman would even get mad if we took a break. They really wanted us to work very, very hard. We couldn’t take it anymore … so we held a protest rally. And then we were fired."

Fairfood also documented health problems suffered by workers who handled pesticides that are banned in the European Union, as well as unfavourable land deals between multinationals and unwitting locals.

"In the beginning we had good relations with these foreigners. They asked our permission to plant and farm the land, and our elders agreed," Datu Suliman, a tribal chief, told Fairfood.

"But through some means unknown to us, they managed to have the land titled to their names. Our elders were unaware of this because they were uneducated."

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