Green beans sold in Dutch supermarkets often hail from Morocco, where they are picked and packed under poor labour conditions. Pay is less than a living wage, unions are not respected or tolerated, overwork is mandatory and occurs on a regular basis, and labourers are exposed to pesticides and fertilisers without protective equipment. Large Dutch supermarket chains such as Albert Heijn, Jumbo/C1000 and Lidl require their suppliers to respect human and labour rights, but new research shows that there is a big difference between their policies on paper and the reality on the ground.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are the calling card of almost every supermarket. In the Netherlands 76% of all fruit and vegetable is sold in supermarkets. To be able to offer fresh fruit and vegetable produce all year round, it is often and increasingly imported from developing countries. This trade brings income and employment to areas that are in great need of this economic activity. But because labour conditions in producing countries are often not as good as in other countries, the danger of labour rights violation grows as the volume of the import grows.

Harsh labour conditions

Spilling the Beans

Precarious work in Morocco’s green beans production for Dutch supermarkets

SOMO, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, has studied the conditions under which green beans are produced in Morocco, the biggest global exporter of this popular vegetable. At two large suppliers of Albert Heijn, Jumbo/C1000 and Lidl, the labourers reported earning insufficient wages to live on, being transported to work like cattle, exposed to pesticides and feeling forced to regularly work long days in the burning sun, hot greenhouses or the cold warehouses where the green beans are picked and packed.

“One of the biggest problems in the sector is the suppression of the unions,” says researcher Sanne van der Wal. “This makes it difficult for the workers to be able to join forces towards their employers and achieve the necessary improvements. At the company that came out of this study looking best, unions did exist but they were not negotiated with. One green beans producer (for Albert Heijn among others) does not tolerate unions at all.”

Supermarkets should act responsibly

Although the three supermarket chains say they are making their suppliers adhere to internationally acknowledged labour rights, little to no evidence of this can be found in Morocco.

“According to international guidelines, supermarkets, just like other companies, are responsible for making a clear inventory of the risks of labour rights violations in their supply chain, and to take fitting measures to remedy these. Albert Heijn, Jumbo are Lidl are clearly falling short of the mark” says Van der Wal.