The COVID-19 pandemic brings into sharp focus the importance of effective food supply chains. Yet it also shines a light on long-standing power inequalities and exploitative working conditions, which are often exacerbated during this crisis.
COVID-19 related impacts on workers in food and beverage supply chains include a lack of worker voice (for example, dismissal of unions leaders under the pretext of COVID-19) and a lack of respect of the rights of workers in vulnerable conditions, such as women workers, migrant workers, seasonal and temporary workers, workers from indigenous groups, and economically vulnerable workers. Negative impacts of the pandemic on labour rights can be observed around the world in both food processing and production (impacting for example workers producing soft drinks or processing meat) and in particular at commodity level, i.e., impacting workers picking fruits, salad, and vegetables, or producing goods such as palm oil or seafood.
Impacts on workers cover a range of ILO indicators of forced labor, in particular
- Abuse of vulnerability: Workers picking fruit and vegetables in Peru, working in unsafe conditions without appropriate social distancing, report being threatened with dismissal if they do not show up to work when ill
- Restriction of movement: Workers in a rice mill in Nigeria were locked into the mill for nearly three months and forced to work throughout lockdown
- Isloation: Mexican migrant workers working on farms in Canada were not allowed to leave the farm they worked on allegedly due to COVID-19 (a rule not applicable to Canadian workers)
- Physical and sexual violence: Union members in the meat processing sector in Brazil calling for better protection against the pandemic were met with violent police attacks.
- Intimidation and threats: Migrant workers in the US meat processing plants are threatened with termination if they call in sick
- Withholding of wages: 25,000 tea workers in India face hardship and hunger due to unpaid wages
- Abusive working and living conditions: Migrant workers on Spanish farms live in cardboard and plastic shelters without food or running water
- Excessive overtime: Women workers picking bananas in Ecuador face excessive working hours and concerns over leaving vulnerable family members alone at home
Oxfam notes by the end of 2020, 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, including workers and small-holder farmers, while the biggest food and drink companies paid out over $18 billion to shareholders since January.