ESRC Seminar #1: The Fruits of our Labour

ESRC Seminar Series
“The Fruits of Our Labour: Work, labour and the political economy of our food system”
Essex Sustainability Institute, Colchester
Wednesday, 29 October 2014

This inaugural event in the ESRC series explored the political economy of food and agriculture, its influence on those working in the agri-food sector, and how issues of labour interact with other challenges facing the food system. The seminar attempted to lift the commodity veil and examine the production process hidden from consumers to tell the story of those working within the agri-food sector. It also sought to understand new forms of labour and labour structures that are emerging as a response to the problems faced by the agri-food system and how far they might go towards addressing them.



Introduction to the seminar – Steffen Boehm, Director, Essex Sustainability Institute, University of Essex & Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University London

Keynote speaker- Josefa Salete Barbosa Cavalcanti, Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil
The construction and contradiction of quality: Workers and working conditions in the global food system

The notion of quality plays a defining role in shaping the global food system. The need to control production processes in order to cultivate and construct commodities which meet with consumer demand for ‘quality’ produce has become a distinct aspect of how quality pervades the food system. However, the ways in which food quality is defined and certified has implications for labour practices and the ‘quality’ of food workers lives, contributing to increased forms of exploitation and inequalities. I explore these contradictions of quality through research about issues of gender division of labour, changing working conditions and labour relations more generally. Although this research is located in spaces of export orientated food production in the Global South it has much wider relevance and initiates a much wider debate about labour processes and how they are defined in the global food system.

Values in food-supply chains

Session 1: Land and Labour- What about the Workers?
Charlie Clutterbuck, Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Food Policy, City University London

This talk gives some thoughts on why food workers in the rich world seem to be invisible in academia and policy thinking generally. There is a good, strong and intellectual lobby to give ‘voice’ to small farm, particularly female, labour in the South, but barely any interest in workers here in the rich world’s food system. It is as if the food just arrives by magic and markets. Why? In the last few years, a plantation model of labour seems to have emerged here in the rich world, where more land is being given over to monocultures which utilise migrant workers as pickers, pluckers, hoers, and harvesters. I consider whether a plantation model of farm/food labour has moved to more temperate climes. Recent political developments in the UK, such as the abolition of the English Agricultural Wages Board (rest of UK have kept AWBs), seems to fit this analysis; skills are out, cheapness, flexibility, pliability, being on-hand, and almost ‘field prisons’ are the new forms of capital versus labour on the land, undermining the more ‘family’ farms.

Session 2: Opportunist dealing in supermarket supply chains and its consequences for work
Adam Leaver, CRESC and Manchester Business School & Andrew Bowman, The University of Manchester, CRESC

Britain’s pig meat industry is a familiar story of a widening trade deficit and decline in national self-sufficiency. The causes are at first glance unusual though. The imports come not from a low-wage competitor with climatic or geographic advantages, but (primarily) from Denmark and the Netherlands where wages are considerably higher. The causes lie in dysfunctional supply chain organisation which enables supermarket retailers to pass risk to suppliers while taking margins. The consequence for the processing and farming industry is chronic instability, which damages firm finances through poor capacity utilisation and discourages productive investment. For the workforce, the consequences are increased flexibilisation as companies adjust to unstable demand, and in the worst cases factory closures or sales to private equity. While pig meat provides a stark example of the damage caused by the supermarket business models on food supply chains, it is by no means an isolated example as evidenced by the dairy industry.

Session 3: Social Justice as Fairness in the Global Food System”
Michael Heasman, Senior Lecturer in Food Policy and Management, Harper Adams University

This paper argues that the concept of ‘social justice as fairness’ could be a powerful analytical tool with which to hold corporations accountable for activities across their supply chains. It paper explores the concept of social justice as fairness by using examples drawn from the role of civil society and NGOs working on the working conditions and wages of the workers and smallholders who produce, harvest, produce and manufacture food. It is argued there is need for more urgent debate about work and the working conditions of those who produce our food and to develop evidence on the consequences of not addressing this element in global food supply chains in relation to the use of natural resources, local sustainability, and for human health and well-being in communities caught in ‘unfair’ working practices.

Diverse and alternative realities of labour in food and agriculture

Session 4: It makes you make the time- An ethnographic exploration of why busy people need allotments
Abigail Schoneboom, Visiting Fellow, Newcastle University School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape

This paper on an ethnographic study of busy allotment-holders in Newcastle Upon Tyne, explores the juxtaposition of time spent on the allotment and time devoted to paid employment and caregiving responsibilities. Through interviews and participant observation this research captures the experience of garden time as an activity that is jealously guarded even in the face of extreme time scarcity. It examines the seeming contradiction of adding a very time-consuming responsibility (the allotment) onto a busy schedule, revealing the desire for unbounded time that underlies such a choice. The study is informed by, and aims to develop, the idea that paid work continually extends its reach into our lives, and that our understanding of work can be informed by what, nominally, goes on outside of it. It suggests a limited and often contingent level of control over time that busy professionals experience, highlighting the pursuit of ‘obligatory leisure’ as a means of maintaining a healthier work-life balance.

Session 5: Spectacle, distance and détournement
The International Union of Food workers’ campaign against Mondelēz International- Carole Elliott, Senior Lecturer in Management, Durham University Business School

In this presentation we present an empirical study that, using visual semiotics (van Leeuwen, 1996) compares two websites: (a) the website of a ‘reinvented’ corporation, Mondelēz International (MI) (Fig. 1), a corporation spun off from Kraft Foods in 2012; and (b) a parody website, ‘Screamdelēz International’ (Fig. 2) produced by the International Union of Food workers (IUF) as part of a campaign against anti-union activities conducted by Mondelēz International. The analysis of the websites is used as a springboard for a study of a neoliberal corporation (MI) and the IUF’s wider campaign against the corporation’s anti-union activities in e.g., Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan and the Americas. Our presentation addresses the following questions: (1) how does the corporate website, understood as the ‘social organisation of appearances’ (Debord 1967), present the corporation’s identity? What – or who – is included? What – or who – is excluded? And (2) how does the IUF campaign and its parody website attempt to lift the veil on the corporate activities of MI, by e.g., making the invisible visible and connecting the virtual and the material?

Session 6: Working the Field- A Marxist interpretation of labour in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
David Watson, PhD Student, University of Essex

CSAs are part of the picture of alternative food systems that has been the subject of much academic interest and enquiry over recent years. Although the format and structures vary they typically involve the consumer engaging in some of the labour involved in the production of the food which they will consume. Specific studies of CSAs have been less common but have tended to paint the experience of CSA in a positive light although they have been criticized as a middle class niche. Contrary to this assumption I explore a Marxist analysis of the form and meaning of labour undertaken by CSA members to assess how far these unique sites of labour in the agri-food system can go in unpicking some of its problems

Session 7: Does Ethical Trade Stop Short of Protecting Workers Effectively?”
Chris Cramer, Professor of the Political Economy of Development, School of Oriental and African Studies

There is increasing evidence from a range of very different, but independent, research projects that Fairtrade has profound shortcomings, and that these are especially acute when it comes to the wages and working conditions of wage workers. Drawing on a four year DFID funded research project in Ethiopia and Uganda, but pointing to other related research also, this presentation highlights some serious challenges for ‘ethical’ trade and for consumers anxious to do the right thing. Further, while the difference between prices paid to farmers/producers and to OECD retailers is often regarded as ‘unfair’, barely anyone asks how ‘fair’ the difference is between wages received by manual agricultural workers and Fairtrade organization leaders or ethical trading executives in the UK or Europe. Why is this? What does it say about our notions of fairness and economic justice?

Panel discussion


We asked some of those at the seminar what they thought about the issues raised during it with the intention of helping academics and civil society actors create a common agenda on food, the questions posed were as follows:

1. What do you think is the most important challenge facing the issue of Food and Labour?
2. Are academics adequately engaged in addressing / solving this issue?
3. What can civil society do to address / solve this issue you identified?

The interviewees are:

1. Charlie Clutterbuck, Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Food Policy, City University London
2. Adam Leaver, Senior Lecturer in Business Analysis, Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, Manchester Business School
3. Bob Mehew, Local Food Producer
4. Amy Wright, MSc Student, University of Essex
5. Carlos Gonzalez Fischer, Scientific Officer, Compassion in World Farming
6. Asumi Saito, University of Essex
7. Antonio Ioris, Lecturer in Environment and Society, University of Edinburgh
8. Joe Holly, Director, Global Labour Institute, Manchester
9. Jessica Paddock, Research Associate, University of Manchester
10. Rebecca White, Research Fellow, Science Policy Research Unit, Sussex University
11. Emire Erdogan, PhD student, University of Warwick
12. Salete Cavalcanti, Professor, Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil
13. Dave Watson, PhD Student, University of Essex

Watch the videos on our Youtube Channel

The Future of our Food is a major new seminar series funded by the UK Economic and Social Sciences Research Council. It brings people together to jointly explore emerging challenges in agriculture and food in the UK and globally. Each seminar explores themes of resilience, sustainability, nutritional security, public health, well-being and justice in the food system.