Do you ever consider how many people have been involved in the process of producing, packaging, buying and selling the food you have on your plate?
And who these people are?
For instance – did you know that half of the world’s farmers are women?
As you can imagine, farming – or indeed any form of manual labour – can pose threats to health and safety of the workers in that industry. But usually, one would expect the major ‘threats’ to be things such as safety while operating heavy machinery, working in harsh environments, or being physical exhausted.
Yet this is a threat far less obvious. Described as a current epidemic in the US, this also is a global issue, faced by women working in the agricultural industry all over the world.
This is the threat of sexual exploitation and abuse.
An International Labour Organisation (ILO) study on sexual violence and harassment of women agricultural workers showed this type of abuse occurs world-over - in the fields, plantations, greenhouses, and packing areas of agribusinesses – in both high and low-income countries.
Many elements of this type of work exacerbate the issue - much agricultural work is done in fields, where workers are sometimes isolated; the majority of supervisory jobs are held by men, who can exert coercive power over those with lower status; and certain entrenched cultural and social norms can also increase the likelihood of violence and harassment through secrecy and shame, stigmatisation, and misplaced senses of entitlement.
To make matters worse it’s been reported that the exposure of poverty and conditions of vulnerability of women working in agriculture tends to disempower the actual victims of sexual violence and harassment – actively preventing witnesses from coming forward. And so, tragically, the real number of incidences of sexual violence and harassment in agriculture remains largely unknown.
I listened to a fascinating programme on the BBC World Service called #MeTo Food spotlighting this issue. It detailed that the industry with perhaps the highest level of exploitation is shrimp farming. Consumer demand has driven the expansion of Bangladesh’s shrimp industry, with approximately 97% of shrimp produced for export to foreign markets. In Bangladesh, most women are forced to shrimp farms as the male village populations migrate to the country’s cities to seek better paid work. The EJ Foundation's report Impossibly Cheap details the horrific extent of the sexual exploitation, forced labour, torture and the dangerous working conditions here.
Of course this is only one element of the abuse that occurs in this supply chain; countless slavery, child labour and human trafficking are also rife. NGOs and campaign groups continue to fight for greater protection measures – and subsequently oversight has somewhat been tightened - yet it’s still not enough to stamp out this issue once and for all.
Even in the USA the issue persists – as seen in the tomato harvesting industry in Florida. One worker from Mexico, interviewed on The Food Chain, admitted that sexual harassment and abuse were commonplace, and that most victims are too scared, and financially vulnerable, to speak out. But there is hope – a victim herself, she now works with the 'Coalition of Immokalee Workers' conducting workers’ rights education in farms around the US as part of an initiative called the Fair Food Program.
But all of this is extremely delicate. Often the interventions along the chain are complex and protests can even be counter-productive – as mentioned above – so actually, in the end, the most powerful voice is ours, the consumer's.
We can fight back against these perpetrators - and on behalf of these victims - by consuming conscientiously.
Let’s make sure we only buy food from reputable brands; and, in particular, try to avoid buying shrimp from Thailand (another country renowned for forced labour) and Bangladesh.
And above all, let’s try to be mindful of how our food arrived on our plates.