There’s Tremendous Human Suffering Behind Our Food. It’s Time to End It.

Oxfam’s new campaign seeks to spotlight the unequal and unjust global food system, and highlight the role and responsibilities of supermarkets.


Melati,* a worker in an Indonesian factory, was trained to peel 600 shrimp in one hour—one every six seconds. But she could never meet this target. Working in dangerous conditions, she struggled to breathe and burned her hands because she did not have proper safety equipment when cleaning the conveyor belt with chlorine.

“I was given plastic gloves because we ran out of rubber gloves,” Melati says. But they didn’t cover beyond her wrists, and she had to put her arms into the bucket of chlorine mixture for the cleaning cloth. “My hand was burning, and I was out of breath because of the strong chlorine.”

Melati. (Photo credit: Adrian Mulya/The Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia)

Melati. (Photo credit: Adrian Mulya/The Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia)

Women like Melati, who process shrimp in Indonesia and Thailand aren’t just struggling in terrible working conditions, they are earning very little. In fact, a woman working in one of these processing plants would need to work 4,000 years to earn what the chief executive at a top U.S. supermarket earns in one year. That’s 58 lifetimes.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We spend enough money at grocery stores to ensure that supermarkets make a healthy profit without human suffering.

Oxfam’s new Behind the Barcodes campaign, launched today, spotlights the unequal and unjust global food system, and highlights the role and responsibilities of supermarket giants. And we’re challenging some of the biggest supermarkets to do more to improve the well-being of the most vulnerable people working to bring food to their shelves.

Human suffering should never be an ingredient in the food we eat, yet millions of people behind the food at supermarkets like Stop & Shop, Giant, and Whole Foods, are working in appalling and unsafe conditions for shockingly little pay.

In fact, the vast global food supply chain relies on the economic exploitation of millions of people. From forced labor aboard fishing vessels in Southeast Asia, to poverty wages on Indian tea plantations and hunger among fruit and vegetable pickers in Southern Italy, human rights abuses are widespread among the women and men who produce the food that we buy from supermarkets around the world.

Working in dangerous conditions, earning low wages, and living in poverty, these workers can hardly feed their families all while supermarket executives are enjoying big profits. The eight largest publicly-owned supermarket chains in the world generated nearly a trillion dollars in sales in 2016, including $22 billion in profits, of which $15 billion were returned to shareholders.

Supermarkets are keeping an increasingly growing share of the money people spend in the checkout line, and the amount that reaches workers and food producers is shrinking, sometimes to less than 5 percent. That comes out to less than five cents of every dollar.

In our research, we found that the root causes of this inequality and injustice stem from both the increase in the power of supermarkets to squeeze value from their suppliers, and the lack of collective power workers have where they source their food from.

We looked at Albertsons, Ahold Delhaize (the parent company to Food Lion, Giant, and Stop & Shop), Costco, Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods, and found that they all need to radically improve transparency around their food sourcing policies and do more to ensure their suppliers respect labor and human rights.

While a few have taken action around issues of social responsibility, no supermarket is providing enough information about their suppliers, making it difficult to ensure that they have conducted proper due diligence on human rights risks in their supply chains.

We also took a look at the working conditions in seafood processing in Southeast Asia. Oxfam and the Sustainable Seafood Alliance found that some of the biggest supermarkets in the U.S., including Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, and Giant, are sourcing their seafood from places where workers described unsafe conditions, poverty wages, strictly controlled bathroom and water breaks, and verbal abuse. And we found that these supermarkets are not doing enough to ensure that these workers are treated and compensated fairly.

Melati holding shrimp. (Photo credit: Adrian Mulya/The Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia)

Melati holding shrimp. (Photo credit: Adrian Mulya/The Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia)

No one should suffer or go hungry to bring food to our plates. Supermarkets can take concrete steps to make improvements within their supply chains. They can commit to achieve a living wage for workers, be transparent on the gap between current wages of male and female production workers, and commit to closing that inequality gap. They can also work with trade unions and local civil society organizations to make sure their workers’ needs are met.

That’s why we’re calling on Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, and Giant to work to ensure that workers who farm, fish, and process the food they sell on their shelves can work free of abuse, harassment, discrimination, and unfair treatment, have a safe place to work, and have the right to speak out against the suffering they experience, and are free from retaliation.

Supermarkets care what their customers think, which is why your voice matters. You don’t need to stop buying your favorite products or shopping at your favorite store to make a difference. Instead, tell your supermarket to find solutions that can end the human suffering behind our food. If enough people urge them to do what is right, they will have no choice but to listen.

* Melati’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Top photo: Seafood processing in Indonesia. (Photo credit: Adrian Mulya/The Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia)

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

View Comments

  1. Thursday, June 21st, 2018
    I wonder, is there a similar campaign taking place in the UK (and/or in other european countries)?
  2. Florence Kekong
    Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018
    I write to appreciate the tremendous work you are doing. I am concerned about the long hours our rural peasant women farmers spend in producing food that yields them nothing.
    Thank you for sharing in this concern.
    May God bless you all, amen
  3. Michael A Knez
    Wednesday, July 4th, 2018
    I would like more information about what I can do to influence the supermarkets, (I shop at Food Lion and Walmart usually in my rural area), in order to pressure them to be socially conscious. I also shop COSTCO when I go into the city. I have always considered them to be one of the more socially conscious of the big players. Write letters to who? Phone calls? We consumers like low prices but if we know the extra money is going to those that need it the most, the actually workers, then I think we would gripe less about rising prices.
  4. Sonja Leonard Leonard
    Tuesday, July 17th, 2018
    Stopped buying shrimp five years ago and I encourage friends to do the same until all the workers are treated fairly and humanely.