Working Conditions

Issue Overview

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the agricultural sector employs 1.3 billion workers worldwide and is one of the three most dangerous sectors for workers when measuring the frequency of fatalities, injuries and diseases contracted at work. At least 170,000 agriculture workers are killed on the job each year globally, and millions more are seriously injured in workplace accidents. As a result of the informal nature of labor in agricultural production, proper measurement and mitigation of dangerous and hazardous work is difficult.

Of the billions of workers employed in agriculture, the sector has the largest share of child laborers. Of the 152 million children in child labor globally, 107.5 million (71 percent) are working in agriculture.[i] An estimated 2.2 million people worked in forced labor situations globally in 2016 in agriculture, fishery and forestry.[ii]

In many countries, including the U.S., agricultural workers are exempt under most national labor laws, and may have few social protections that other employees enjoy, particularly wages, overtime pay, freedom of association and collective bargaining. Without these protections agricultural workers tend to have low pay, few benefits and little recourse for grievances, making them vulnerable to economic and physical exploitation.

Migrant agricultural workers in particular are at risk for exploitation by labor brokers who may employ unethical practices such as recruitment fees, passport retention, and contract fraud to lure them into forced labor schemes and use threats of deportation to keep them from reporting abuses.

Food and agriculture companies face considerable exposure to labor rights violations among suppliers, many of whom are based in countries lacking basic worker protections. Forced and child labor in food company supply chains can cause reputation damage when “bad actors” tarnish the image of an entire industry or sector and subject companies to lawsuits. Discovery of forced labor and child labor may also cause the cancelling of contracts and loss of market access due to the ever-changing landscape of legislation globally. In addition, social conflict can cause disruptions in agricultural supply chains and low worker retention.

Audits are often the first step a company takes to monitor working conditions in their extended supply chain, but the United Nations Global Compact and other global agencies are pushing companies to change the nature of their relationships with suppliers. The most egregious forms of human rights violations are mostly hidden and are often missed during audits.[iii] Systemic, lasting change requires that companies partner with their suppliers, establishing mechanisms for worker voices to be heard.

Grievance mechanisms can play this role by establishing connections between workers throughout a supply chain to downstream companies. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights sets global expectations that companies should establish and manage effective grievance mechanisms. Grievances from workers are likely in any company’s operations – by establishing a mechanism through which workers and other stakeholders can communicate issues to companies, companies can proactively manage risk and effectively remedy situations before they pose any damage to reputation or result in litigation. Learn more in our new Investor Primer on Grievance Mechanisms.


[iii] Laborers instructed to do work one way when auditors come to work sites & then return to old, dangerous methods when they leave

Commodity Exposure to Working Conditions Issues

Priority Commodities

Among the most commonly sourced commodities profiled in Engage the Chain, impacts related to livelihoods and working conditions are significant in the production of cattle, palm oil and sugarcane.

The following summarizes how the production of cattle, palm oil and sugarcane contribute worldwide to impacts on livelihoods and working conditions, demonstrating how these deeply entwined issues can cause grave financial and physical risks to workers, farmers and communities. It is important to consider that the scale of the impacts depends on the practices used by individual producers, as well as regional and local conditions.


Continued global appetite for red meat and leather goods has kept demand for cattle high and has continued to have negative environmental impacts, especially in terms of deforestation. Deforestation is often linked to increased rates of human trafficking, displacement of local indigenous populations and disruption of traditional livelihoods and subsistence practices.

Media coverage in 2017 of forced labor in the Amazon linked to cattle production illustrated how poor human rights and environmental practices can go hand-in-hand. One family was forced to live on a cattle ranch and work for two years without any pay, incurring debt from the rancher who provided them minimal food and shelter. Of the 50,000 workers in Brazil that have been rescued from similar conditions by authorities, a third were working on cattle ranches.[i]

The 2016 U.S. Department of Labor List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, notes forced labor and child labor in cattle ranching and herding in Brazil in addition to nine other countries. Some pastoral communities rely on child laborers to spend months as shepherds and herders, often working in isolated and hazardous conditions.[ii]

In more industrialized settings, raising and slaughtering of cattle poses a number of hazards for workers aiming to meet strict production quotas in limited quantities of time. Cattle production provides one of the few areas of reliable employment in rural communities, making workers vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor-like conditions. Clearing of land through slash and burn techniques for cattle production is also hazardous for workers and local communities.

Palm Oil

Rapid palm oil plantation expansion is creating exploitative working conditions, including child labor, forced labor and trafficking of migrant workers. In many regions, small-scale operators lack access to resources, which limits their productivity and food security.

The U.S. Department of Labor identified palm oil production in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Sierra Leone as high risk for child labor and Malaysia as high risk for forced labor. Smallholders play a key role in the labor-intensive palm oil industry, making it critical to get them involved in driving changes in production. Smallholders need help gaining access to markets and may require additional technical and financial resources to support productivity improvements and shifts in cultivation practices.

  • In Indonesia, smallholders manage about one-quarter palm plantations.
  • Globally, around three million smallholders are involved in oil palm cultivation.
  • Smallholders’ productivity is 35 percent lower than larger plantations and improvements such as technical expertise and training could help meet increasing demand without further expansion of palm plantations. 

Social disputes with local communities and workers can disrupt operations through roadblocks, development delays, demonstrations or employee strikes. Though the palm oil sector provides employment for millions and significantly reduces poverty, the current work is done through long, hard hours at low pay. The development of new large-scale oil palm plantations is also leading to social conflict when the rights and livelihoods of the local communities are ignored. Work on palm plantations is strenuous and hazardous throughout the growing and harvesting process. Application of highly toxic herbicides and pesticides – such as paraquat - by workers can cause severe health impacts without proper protective gear and usage. Use of sharp tools such as a scythe to harvest the fruit can be dangerous and monotonous, causing risk of injury to workers.


Numerous violations of the ILO’s core labor principles are linked to sugarcane production.

The U.S. Department of Labor has identified 19 sugarcane producing countries with high risks for child and/or forced labor, including three of the five largest producers of sugarcane: Brazil, India and Thailand. In many of these regions, smallholder farmers and operators lack access to resources, which limits their productivity and food security. Other human rights challenges include inadequate compensation, restricted rights to associate and lack of contracts for laborers.

Occupational safety and health hazards arise from hand harvesting of sugarcane with sharp tools like machetes; the monotony of the work combined with long hours working in hot sun lead to frequent accidents. Recent reports of working conditions among sugarcane cutters in hot temperatures has been linked to an unusually high incidence of deadly kidney failure, likely associated to the lack of rest or water and high exposure to pesticides. In addition, pre- and post-harvest burning can result in smoke inhalation and respiratory concerns for workers while also generating air pollution in the neighboring communities.

Business Risks Associated With Working Conditions and Livelihoods Impacts


In 2016, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) passed the Social Resolution on Forced Labour, a commitment to fight forced labor throughout its global supply chains. Nestle, a signatory to the resolution, implemented an internal monitoring system to investigate human rights abuses.


  • Costs of complying with human rights and labor certifications, including costs to implement internal monitoring policies


A line of Hershey’s chocolate was dropped by Whole Foods and the company agreed to more aggressive human rights and labor certification in its supply chain in 2012 after NGOs (International Labor Rights Forum, Green America, etc) campaigned against the company, including threatening to run a Super Bowl ad on the issue of abuses in the coca supply chain. The company agreed to improvements (which have been further strengthened since) and the ad was dropped.


  • Brand equity damaged due to consumer concerns and advocacy campaigns
  • Costs of complying with human rights and labor certifications


In 2015, the consumer rights law firm Hagens Berman filed separate class action lawsuits against US food companies Mars and Hershey and Swiss Nestlé for failing to report the use of child labour in their cocoa production.


  • Legal fees and monetary settlements for violating laws and regulations