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An open letter on the condition of work and workers behind the UK food system

We are a group of academics, union representatives, civil society organisers, and members of food-related NGOs and think tanks. Many of us gathered in Bristol on June 14th along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Professor Hilal Elver, with the intention to look closely at the condition of work and workers behind the UK food system.

Throughout the day, we shared testimonies, experiences and accounts concerning the main challenges and obstacles faced by workers from farm to fork, including beyond the boundaries of the United Kingdom. We discussed trafficking, modern slavery, low wages, availability, technological innovation, migration, and several other issues that affect and characterize the life and the future of people who make our food possible.

We have closely followed the ongoing conversations around the UK Food Strategy, along with the parliamentary debate around the Agricultural Bill and the proposals on the new post-CAP domestic settlement for agriculture. We have also been particularly attentive to the increase in household food insecurity in the country, in particular among farmworkers, farmers and workers within the food sector. It is striking that hunger, obesity and malnutrition are increasingly felt among those who produce and transform food.

In light of our research, experiences and conversations, we have listed below some of the main conclusions arising from our workshop. There is no food without labour, and because a healthy and justly rewarded workforce is essential to a sustainable food system, we consider that these elements should inform the whole process of the UK food strategy. When it comes to labour, the future of food is not only about a skilled workforce that knows how to use technology. It is about: an integrated approach and greater coordination within the food system; attention to the bottlenecks; a broad notion of food workers; intersectionality; transparency and visibility; protection, respect and fulfilment of the workers’ human and labour rights; access to justice and reliable enforcement;  and  fair access and use of technological innovation.

Integrated approach and greater coordination: A food strategy must be based on the recognition of the interconnected nature of all phases within the food system: from farm to post-consumption, food-related processes are interdependent. At the same time, a food strategy must recognise the central role that labour has in all phases (farming, transporting, processing, distributing, etc.), and – given that 50% of the food consumed in the UK is imported – the strategy must also acknowledge that a significant part of the work behind our food is realised elsewhere. Thus, the UK food strategy must be structured around an interdependent approach to food which regards workers as one of its pillars (along with the environmental impact of the food system, the safety of food, the quality of food, its accessibility and sustainability, the fight against poverty and inequality, animal conditions, use, access and distribution of land and water) and that is not blind to workers and working conditions outside of the UK.

Attention to the bottlenecks: A food system is the combination of natural resources, ingredients, individuals, corporations, government actions, regulations, policies and any other element that defines the way in which production, transformation, consumption and post-consumption of food take place. Each of the elements of the puzzle is connected with multiple levels though formal and informal links that are characterized by different levels of power. When it comes to workers and working conditions in the food system, the power of certain actors must be taken seriously. One of the priorities should be the assessment of major food retailers’ market power and the way in which it is exercised over suppliers in order to obtain cheaper products that often lead to a cut in workers’ protection and labour conditions. Given the expansion of private labelled products, our group suggests that the food strategy pays particular attention to the way in which vertical integration of supermarkets and retailers is affecting production and consumption beyond the usual patterns.

Broad notion of food workers: Food workers are not only those that are formally employed or officially self-employed, but also those that act informally, irregularly and without a proper status. Food workers are also the carers and volunteers (mainly women) whose non-paid labour is essential to the preparation of meals in the household, in a variety of community settings, in food hubs and in other social spaces. Food workers are also the volunteers of the food aid charities (like the Independent Food Aid Network – IFAN) and food banks, and their non-paid labour allows millions of people every year to access food aid in the UK. According to IFAN, volunteers contribute more than 4 million hours in support to UK foodbanks every year, an incredible amount of unpaid labour that is worth – at the national minimum wage – at least £30 million a year. Without the adoption of a broader definition of food workers, no food strategy could truly be integrated and holistic.

Healthy, Just and Safe works: Recently, some attention has been paid to the existence of modern slavery in the UK food system and in the international supply chains that feed UK people and animals. Yet the focus on contemporary forms of slavery as an exception of the food system has reduced the attention paid to other forms of exploitation. Be it the unsafe and unhealthy workplaces that lead to a large amount of injuries, the gap between current wages and real living wages, the combination of extended working hours, long commuting and the cost and scarcity of transportation, the non-existence of appropriate social provisions, and the inadequacy of support (including for mental conditions such as stress and depression) and benefits. A national food policy should put people at the centre, their health and safety as paramount, with just working conditions not being limited to forms of extreme exploitation like modern slavery.

Intersectionality: Food workers (in the broad sense) are not only workers. They are people whose gender, race, class, disability, legal status, etc., define and affect their potential to work, to access food and to live a decent life. In some cases, these elements represent an obstacle to the achievement of decent working conditions, the possibility to work and the access to an adequate amount of food. A food strategy must recognise the multiple challenges that people in particular conditions face and adopt an approach that is aimed at addressing them with coherence and justice.

Transparency and visibility: As the title of our workshop denotes, the labour and the workers behind food are often invisible to the wider public and the regulator. This has strong repercussions in terms of health, adequacy of the policies, labour conditions and the fulfilment of the workers’ human rights. A food strategy should be based on the recognition of the essential role played by the collection of data, the guarantee of public access to workplaces (including through local and national unions) and the compilation of an updated and holistic record of food workers (that adopts a broad notion of food workers and integrates the intersectional elements discussed above). Particular attention should be paid to the role of recruitment agencies, in particular to better understand the distribution of value between employees and intermediaries and to obtain more accurate data and statistics concerning the state of the workforce in the country.

Protection, respect and fulfilment of human rights: The United Kingdom ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1976. This treaty covers important areas of public policy connected to workers and food, such as the right to work; fair and just conditions of work, social security, an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing and the right to health. Already in 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights published its concluding observations on the UK highlighting the importance of a right-based approach to several areas, including job security, trade union rights and the rights of the most marginalised. In light with the UN report, we consider that a food strategy must be based on the protection, respect and fulfilment of human rights, not only of the eaters of food (e.g. right to access adequate food) but also of the workers who make food possible (including their own right to food). A rights-based approach not only promotes dignity and justice, but recognises that human beings have a legal entitlement (a right) to social protection and the enhancement of their lives that is matched by the obligation of public authorities to guarantee it: the right to work, the right to adequate working conditions, the right to job security, the right to food and housing, etc., are not optional but rather a central component of a democratic state based on the rule of law.

Access to justice and reliable enforcement: in the 2016 report, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated that the UK government should act in order to make sure that “disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups should have access to justice and legal aid” and that “the Government should consider the impact on human rights in their international development work.” It is our shared understanding that the latest reforms of the Employment Tribunal System, including the introduction of the employment tribunal fees in 2013 then ruled contrary to UK and EU law in 2017, increasingly made it more difficult to bring cases against employers. The lack of an effective access to justice and a reliable enforcement of rights represents one of the main obstacles to the construction of a fair food system that treats workers fairly and according to their needs. Lack of funds, fear of retaliation, individual vulnerabilities, and the absence of adequate public support for workers, unions and civil society organisations significantly impede the realisation of the rights that should be at the centre of a holistic food strategy. Moreover, the food strategy should be structured having in mind that corporate decisions made within the UK and national policies may have an extraterritorial impact on the rights and conditions of workers operating in other jurisdictions. In accordance with the concept of Extraterritorial Human Rights Obligations of states (ETOs) developed in the Maastricht Principles, access to justice and reliable enforcement should also be guaranteed to individuals and groups working outside the UK who are directly affected by the actions and decisions made by UK private or public actors.

Enhancing Legal Awareness: A food strategy that takes workers’ rights seriously should make sure that employers, individuals, unions, civil society organisations and any other actors involved in the food system are fully aware of their rights and obligations. This includes, for example, the existence and role of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), the broad framework of human rights that are directly or indirectly recognised within the UK legal system, the role of the Competition and Market Authority in addressing abuses of dominant position and the existence of a Groceries Supply Code of Practices and a Groceries Code Adjudicator with the power to investigate and sanction retailers.

Fair access and use of technological innovation: A final point of concern regards the link between technology, labour and the future of the UK food system. Technological innovation has been permeating all phases of the food chain: precision farming, drones and hybrid seeds, smart-animal factories, bar codes, robotized warehouses and the expansion of food delivery apps (gig-economy or platform economy) are transforming conditions of labour from farm to fork. Although technology has the potential to improve the labour conditions by enhancing productivity and reducing intensity, there is a perceived risk that it can also lead to higher unemployment, higher intensity, increased dependency of farmers and workers (to costly machineries or to the intermediary platform), reduction of biodiversity, concentration of market power in the hands of a few companies and the harvesting and control of data generated when using these technologies. A food strategy that is based on the premises of a just and sustainable food system for the future should be aware of the double edge sword of technology and make sure that public interventions (i.e. subsidies to 5G and smart-agriculture) are realised only after an effective and comprehensive study of their social and environmental implications.

There cannot be a healthy food system without safe, healthy and fair working conditions. There cannot be a national food strategy without a strategy for workers in the food system (including those who are informally working and those who are providing care work). The principles, vision and aspirations presented above are just an overview of the interconnected and interdependent relationship between food and labour. We thus hope for this letter to become the starting point for a longer, horizontal and comprehensive conversation on the best ways to build a food strategy that is not oblivious of the people who make food and feeding possible.

Sincerely,

Tomaso Ferrando, Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol Law School

Polly Lord, Exeter University

Matias Rodriguez-Burr, University of Bristol Law School

Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Deirdre Woods, Co-Chair of Trustees, IFAN

Vicki Hird, Convenor of the Farm and Food Policy working Group – a project of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming

Jyoti Fernandes, Land Workers Alliance

Dan Crossley, Executive Director, Food Ethics Council

Donatella Alessandrini, Professor, University of Kent Law School

Susan Newman, Associate Professor, University of the West of England

Lydia Medland, University of Bristol

Heidi Saxby, University of Newcastle

Ronnie Draper, General Secretary, BFAWU

Huw David Thomas, Lecturer in Management and Industrial Relations, University of Bristol

Jamie Burton, Chair, Just Fair

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