Exploits: A new series on people in the supply chain

Ethical lifestyle platform Live Frankly and Wicked Leeks are collaborating on a new series to raise awareness of the human exploitation across supply chains.

Wicked Leeks and Live Frankly are launching a new, collaborative series to put people front and centre of the sustainability story. 

Newspaper headlines and company impact reports are often focused on efforts being made in areas such as carbon or plastics reduction. While our focus is directed to these (still important) metrics, human exploitation is under-reported. Exploits is a new collaborative series, which will add our voices to those who are countering this under-reporting and raise awareness of the people who underpin all of our supply chains. 

In doing so, we hope to show how this is a systemic exploitation of workers and something that big brands, supermarkets and individuals can do something about. We will share campaigns, petitions and other ways you can help if relevant. We believe that any transition to a greener world also has to be fair, with supply chains that have less impact on the world but also less exploitation. 

In fashion, this dirty secret is hiding in plain sight. Zara owner Inditex made headlines because it boosted its sustainability targets recently, claiming it would make all its textile products from fibres that have a “reduced impact on the environment” by 2030.

But, what about the people who make their clothes? 

“Three years after the pandemic, Zara is nowhere close to resolving [the issue of rampant wage theft], and continues to neglect the wellbeing of garment workers in their supply chain,” South Asia coordinator of Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), Abiramy Sivalogananthan, told Live Frankly recently. 

Meanwhile, Nike is reported to be “continuing its commitment to innovation and sustainability” by launching the new Infinity RN 4 running shoe (which reduces the carbon footprint by at least 43 per cent compared to the previous Nike React).

But, where are the reports on the continued collaboration between 50 labour unions and organisations in Asia, who are working together to amplify awareness of the exploitation endured by garment workers and demand accountability from Nike?

There are also issues of exploitation in the UK that are only just coming to light.

The systematic abuse of seasonal workers on UK farms has been subject of a recent investigation for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. According to worker testimonies, they are referred to as numbers, rather than names, threatened with dismissal and housed in mouldy, cramped accommodation – all while they pick fresh fruit and veg, destined for British shelves and marketed as the best, most healthy ingredients. 

“We weren’t humans, we were chattels,” said Sybil Msezane, who came to the UK to work on berry and veg farms after the government seasonal worker scheme opened to South Africans last year.

In fishing, a 2022 report from International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF Global) revealed:

 “The sector survives by routinely underpaying migrant fishers. Migrants don’t get paid according to the ‘share of catch’ system. They’re not even being paid the UK minimum wage.”

It details the other consequences of this system, which include inadequate working conditions, human rights abuses, forced labour, human trafficking and physical and verbal abuse. 

There are journalists and NGOs already working to bring these issues to light and we will use our respective platforms to help amplify this work further wherever we can. 

We know we don’t have the resources of some of the brilliant investigative teams at places like The Bureau of Investigative Journalism or Ethical Consumer magazine, both of which have been doing incredible on-the-ground reporting on this topic. We aim to build on their reports, asking questions of our own contacts and networks and bring this important issue to our audiences, who care deeply about ethical issues in food and their daily lives. 

We plan to cover one story a month on this topic. We recognise that the same issues are across all supply chains, and to combine our areas of expertise will consider reports from fashion, food, farming or fishing. 

Nina Pullman, editor of Wicked Leeks, says: “In covering sustainable food and ethical business for Wicked Leeks over the last five years, I’ve spoken to people from across the supply chain. One group who rarely gets voiced are the workers, without whom none of this food would make it to market and certainly not for the price at which it is sold. While some farms do look after their workers, there are many that don’t. I think people would care and ask brands and supermarkets to enforce better conditions for workers if they knew more about it, so I am glad to be adding Wicked Leeks’ voice to this mini series.”

Lizzie Rivera, editor of Live Frankly, says: “Live Frankly covers ethics and sustainability issues across food, fashion, beauty and travel and it is clear these are not isolated cases of exploitation. It is the result of systems that prioritise profits and do not value human life. This treatment of workers is surely unacceptable to many of us. We need to ask why someone is enabled to treat another person in this way, and why society is allowing it to continue?”

Do you have a story of exploitation that you think we should look into? Get in touch: Lizzie@livefrankly.co.uk; Ninapullman@riverford.co.uk.

Interested? Here’s a list of great resources to find out more:

The Landworkers’ Alliance

Focus on Labour Exploitation

Human Rights Watch


Leave a Reply

  1. Great that Wicked Leeks is adding to the analysis of exploitation.
    These issues have come to light before, though.
    In February 2004, 23 Chinese workers were drowned in Morecambe Bay while cockling. Before this, workers from mainland China were working in the fields, packhouses & food processing factories in the Fens. So were workers from the Baltic states – in the King’s Lynn area mostly Lithuanian. Portuguese workers, despite being able to work legally, were subject to similar levels of exploitation. For the most part, I believe growers paid similar rates … but by the time payments had passed through a chain of subcontractors, each taking a cut, wages were minimal. Workers were also charged extortionate prices for substandard accommodation, for transport, for National Insurance contributions that weren’t made … And this is addition to the debts they and their families incurred (to snakeheads in the Chinese case) for fees to get here.
    There were attempts made to tackle exploitation – from a local policeman trying to establish contact with Chinese workers to Citizens’ Advice to academics investigating the issue … It wasn’t of course confined to the Fens: I remember one of the forerunners was a Sikh gangmaster from Birmingham whose community had long worked for farmers in Worcestershire and were being undercut by gangmasters with illegal migrant workers
    – which suggests at least some farmers were paying less.
    But it wasn’t until the Morecambe Bay disaster that the issue got enough attention. The Gangmaster (Licensing) Act was passed in April 2004. Then, the Baltic states joined the EU.
    Job done? No.
    Especially after the UK left the EU. I’ve read of similar examples of exploitation recently, but involving workers from ever further afield.
    Worker exploitation is all part of the business model. Supermarkets compete fiercely on price. Sales are maximised through systematic waste throughout the supply chain. Costs are cut by ‘just in time’, cutting out the middleman/storage costs and therefore requiring a highly flexible as well as cheap workforce. Profits and asset values increase; watchdogs and politicians keep their eyes on price to consumers; growers and workers pay.
    I’m looking forward to Wicked Leeks monthly coverage and, if possible, a way forward to challenge the current business model.


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