Poor working conditions and in-work poverty are widespread among seasonal workers in farms producing tropical fruit for export to the UK, Europe and USA. They are employed on temporary contracts, and have few rights compared to permanent workers. Women are particularly vulnerable, because their caring responsibilities mean they cannot migrate to the cities to look for work in low season. There are reports of harsh treatment and intimidation on some farms. Permanent workers also complain of poor health and safety practices and inadequate protection against exposure to pesticides and chemicals, resulting in injury and work-related disease.
Farm workers were interviewed by local investigators led by Oxfam in Brazil, interviewing both seasonal and permanent workers. They reported being unable to meet their families’ basic needs and feeling vulnerable. A lack of job security affected their ability to speak out about abuses. The researchers identified good practice in the Sao Francisco Valley around Petrolina, where trade unions had negotiated better pay and conditions for workers, including women-friendly policies around the provision of creches, breastfeeding breaks, time off for taking children to the doctor, better protections for temporary workers and other improvements above the legal minimum.
Collective bargaining was found to be effective in finding solutions even to seemingly intractable issues like the vulnerability of workers on short-term contracts. At its best, Brazil’s fruit sector signposts a more effective approach to ethical trade, which could be a model for supply chains globally. The research suggests that empowering workers and their employers to reach agreements about what is achievable in the local context is likely to lead to more sustainable outcomes than audit and enforcement.
Supermarkets could work with trade unions on due diligence and in implementation, and support workers’ access to trade union representation and collective bargaining through their policies and sourcing decisions. Oxfam is calling for improved transparency from supermarkets and suppliers, with supermarkets publishing the names and addresses of their suppliers, down to farm level, in Brazil and elsewhere. This would allow local civil society and trade union groups to alert supermarkets and suppliers to concerns.
Better legal protections for workers are needed. The Brazilian government should review the policy of progressively raising the real value of the minimum wage and review the impact of the 2017 labour reforms against their intended outcomes. Supermarkets can also play a role in advocating for better legal protections for workers and a minimum wage that meets basic family needs, both with the Government of Brazil and with governments in other countries.
Oxfam is also calling for greater engagement with unions on monitoring, due diligence and implementation, empowering workers and employers to reach agreement about what is achievable locally and ensuring women’s voices are heard.
“At its best, Brazil’s fruit sector signposts a more effective approach to ethical trade, which could be a model for supply chains globally.”