The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Workers Behind the Brands: We’ve Got Some Good News and Some Bad News

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Workers’ rights may be an old issue, but it’s still a relevant one.

A sample of beans from numerous sacks of cocoa to make sure they are the appropriate size and volume at the Cooperative Entente de Le Bia in Sankro, Ivory Coast in January. Photo: Peter DiCampo / Oxfam America

There is some good news in the Behind the Brands Scorecard. Some of the highest scores were in the area of workers’ rights.  However, the bad news is that those scores still aren’t in the green zone of “good.” Frankly, there is no real reason why this should be the case.  After all, unlike some of the other themes in the Scorecard, worker’s issues have been with these companies for a very long time.  Recall Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which shown a spotlight on the plight of meatpacking workers in the early 1900’s.  And yet, companies are not doing as well as they should be.

From a methodological standpoint, the indicators for workers’ rights were much easier to develop than some of the other themes in Behind the Brands, since the indicators are based on International Labour Organization Conventions and basic norms of human rights, which have been accepted for quite some time.

While companies with the highest score of 6 (Coca-Cola, Nestle, and Unilever) might be doing better for their own employees, they have not extended many of these standards throughout their supply chain.  That is critical, because labor is often the most valuable asset that small producers and landless people possess.

Agricultural workers are amongst the poorest people in rural areas. Their jobs are often temporary, wages are low, and working conditions can be very hazardous.  More women than men are engaged in waged agricultural jobs, but despite their numbers, they are generally “invisible” to companies, governments, and international institutions. Their organizations can be weak and their access to social security and other benefits is minimal.

With 75% of the world’s poorest living in rural areas, food and beverage companies can have a tremendous impact on raising the standard of living for workers throughout their supply chain. They can do this by ensuring that living wages are paid and precarious work is minimized. Most importantly, by respecting worker representation, collective bargaining, and accessible and confidential grievance mechanisms, food and beverage companies will ensure that everyone contributing to their bottom line has a voice in their livelihoods and thus their future.

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This post on workers’ rights is the last of a Behind the Brands blog series on Politics of Poverty that examines the seven issues relating to poverty and big food companies’ supply chains. Read previous posts on landwomenfarmerstransparencywater, and climate change!

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