Welcome to the Land of Promise

26 August 2013

What if you lived in a place where only a handful of poorly paid jobs were available? What if you had to send your child to work because you couldn’t make enough money to support your family despite working very long hours? What if a secure contract with benefits was no more than a pipedream? Welcome to the Land of Promise: the island of Mindanao in the Philippines and one of the world’s largest pineapple producers.

Mindanao is often referred to as the ‘Land of Promise’ because of its tropical climate and fertile soil. The Philippine government has recognised this, and has a strategy to encourage the agricultural sector to focus on a few cash crops, such as bananas, coffee and pineapple, to take advantage of global export markets. This has led to favourable conditions for large multinational companies operating there.

Instead of such conditions bringing development and prosperity to Mindanao, the bulk of the profits are made by foreign supermarkets, brand owners and their shareholders; while the people of Mindanao are trapped in a vicious circle of poverty and dependence on foreign interests.

As we have seen in many of the BRICS countries, trade represents the fastest and most effective route out of poverty. But true development is only possible if global companies take responsibility to ensure that they are not exploiting workers and stripping assets in the countries where they operate.

The pineapple sector does have a lot of potential to provide a strong economy for the island and secure incomes for its workers, but instead the profit goes into the coffers of supermarkets, many of whom pepper the Fortune 500 list, indicating that they are amongst the highest revenue generators in the world.

Supermarkets as a sector are forcing their suppliers to bear the risk for their special offers, such as buy one get one free, or 50% deals. They use their huge buying power to get their suppliers to agree to contracts that allow the supermarkets to walk away at any stage, even after the products have arrived in their stores.

Fairfood says enough. In the same way that global clothing brands have rightfully been held responsible for the sweatshop conditions suffered by factory workers in their supply chain, Fairfood thinks that it is about time the global supermarkets are also held to account for what happens in their food supply chains.

In an industry worth $2bn annually there is no excuse for the low wages, lack of job security, poverty and child labour we see in the pineapple sector in Mindanao. Fairfood demands that the supermarkets in the US and the EU stop stripping profits and step up to take responsibility for ensuring that these workers get a living wage, so that their children do not have to work on the plantations, and can stay in full time education.

Supermarkets can really drive the change in the whole industry; they can start by looking at their contracts with their suppliers. In the same way that they can currently stipulate who takes the financial risk in the relationship with their suppliers, it would be easy enough to stipulate no child labour may be used in their supply chains and that they expect to see the suppliers taking steps to end irregular work, by offering their labourers contracts that stipulate their hours and working conditions. Once these conditions are in place, workers can legally negotiate for improved conditions.

The proposed changes must be coupled with spot checks on other contracts as part of the general procurement process, because without such checks, the supermarkets cannot say definitively that they are doing what is necessary to ensure the rights of the workers in their supply chains. But this is where NGOs like Fairfood will also play a role, by playing our part as watchdog to ensure that what these companies are claiming in their CSR policies are actually being carried out on the ground.

The gap between the rich and poor has been increasing globally with the rich getting richer off the cheap labour of poor workers. In the 21st century it is unacceptable for multinationals to continue to reap huge profits and pass the blame for labour rights infringements. Fairfood is pushing for an end to this intolerable situation to start in the food sector, and where better to start than in Mindanao?