In recent years we have seen growing public awareness of the social and environmental impact of food supply chains. Of course much greater awareness and action is needed, especially in terms of the appalling working conditions in agriculture and irreparable damage to human health and the environment. But there is no doubt that concern about the source of products in global food supply chains – how they are grown, processed, produced, packaged and transported – is increasing. This is combined with an expectation that these supply chains are  guaranteed to be socially and environmentally sustainable. Those consumers who can afford it are willing to pay more for products that they believe do not cause environmental or social harm. These are deemed more sustainable or more ethical products.

Most concerns regarding environmental sustainability focus on deforestation, habitat destruction, endangered animal species, over-exploitation of scarce natural resources, pesticides, industrial waste, plastic pollution, and climate change. These environmental concerns intersect with health concerns. For example, there is a greater awareness of the link between consumer health, food safety and pesticide use.

While climate change is the major concern, there is also a greater interest in biodiversity loss. The Dasgupta Review in the UK, for example, could eventually have a far-reaching impact on international economic policy (including trade, aid and investment decisions). In the COVID-19 era there will be greater focus on how industrialized agriculture and habitat destruction contributes to the emergence of zoonoses like the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

The main concerns regarding social sustainability focus on child labour, forced labour and trafficking (modern slavery), poverty wages, and rural livelihoods. The Modern Slavery Act [2015] in the UK has already had a far-reaching impact on UK-based companies, especially retailers and supermarkets. The Modern Slavery Act [2018] in Australia has had a similar impact. Similar laws and regulations are being introduced in the EU.

In several countries shareholders and financial institutions also require reporting on the environmental impact of a company’s supply chains, especially in terms of climate change. To a lesser degree there is concern with compliance with new human rights instruments, particularly modern slavery and child labour. Of course much of this is driven by concerns with legal liability and business sustainability in terms of generating (or losing) future potential profits.

As more agri-food companies try to ensure compliance with new environmental and social standards in their supply chains and meet consumer expectations, they are turning to private sector auditing firms, accreditation bodies and international NGOs. Brands carrying certification or accreditation are seen as value-added and consumers are willing to pay a premium price.

However, the business of social and environmental auditing and accreditation by private firms and NGOs is costly. In many cases monitoring and verification by these organizations absorbs a significant part of the premium price – and this reduces the amount passed on to farmers in the form of fair prices or workers in terms of fair wages. This reduces the overall economic and social contribution to the country/province/region in general and the rural community in particular.

In several cases, third party monitoring by NGOs or auditing firms absorbs so much of the premium that small farmers lose any financial incentive to undertake socially and environmentally sustainable farming practices. On both farms and plantations safer, more sustainable work practices through reduced pesticide use may in fact increased costs. If this is not offset by premium prices, then it becomes economically unsustainable despite the potential benefits to health and the environment.

There is also a risk that NGOs and accreditation bodies develop a vested interest in these social and environmental problems continuing. They are paid or receive funding as long as they continue to expose problems, such as child labour. In this case, human rights or environmental issues may become leverage for more funding and to exert pressure on local governments. These organizations are then financed to devise and implement action plans externally, regardless of local government and trade union efforts in this regard.

Lacking any commitment to a particular country or region, these auditing firms and NGOs can easily shift their business to other countries, causing a shift in supply chains. Ultimately the business of auditing and certification leads to the privatization of labour and environmental standards. This changes the purpose of these standards and diminishes the role and responsibilities of governments. This is not only unsustainable, it could become detrimental to the future of local communities. A more effective and sustainable approach is to develop robust labour inspection systems under the appropriate local government authorities. Labour inspection in agriculture extends to both farms and plantations and covers a range of issues related to recruitment, employment and working conditions.

The scope of labour inspection in agriculture and its mechanics is defined in Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Convention, 1969 (No. 129) and Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Recommendation, 1969 (No. 133). The Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention, 2001 (No. 184) and Safety and Health in Agriculture Recommendation, 2001 (No. 192) are important standards that must be incorporated into these labour inspection systems.

While ratification of these conventions and recommendations by national governments is urgently needed, it is not a necessary precondition to the application of standards. These conventions and recommendations can be used as the recognized international standard applied when developing the new system labour inspection in agriculture. The practical implementation of these conventions and recommendations through an inspection mechanism at provincial/regional level will help to establish the integrity of the system. Education of farm and plantation workers about these standards is a vital part of this. This in turn ensures that compliance can actually be measured.

In this way, a resilient and proactive system of labour inspection in agriculture implemented at regional/provincial level would create the necessary infrastructure and mechanisms for compliance with global standards in supply chains. This will enhance the long-term economic viability of sourcing from this region/province. With a credible government labour inspection system in place, there is less need for private sector and third-party certification. As a result, more of the premium can be passed to small farmers and their communities and – through collective bargaining – achieve better wages (living wages) for agricultural and plantation workers.

An effective labour inspection system also means that an authority accountable to the public and not private companies can talk with workers about the reality of their working and living conditions. The credibility and integrity of independent private audits and certification is undermined by its very purpose: to prove there are no problems. Or if there are problems, then they can be resolved (managed) without affecting the economics of farms and plantations. Despite the role of piece-rate wages as a significant driver of child labour, for example, private auditing and certification bodies see it as untouchable because employers claim it will fundamentally affect productivity.

Public sector labour inspectors in an effective, well resourced system can restore the integrity of investigation and compliance as a responsibility of government to set and regulate standards and protect rights, health and the environment. Of course for workers to be able to speak to anyone about really happens on farms and plantations on a day to basis, they must have guaranteed access to the right to freedom of association under Right of Association (Agriculture) Convention, 1921 (No. 11).

It is no coincidence that the same plantations and farms that supply agri-food companies and readily participate in their privatized standard-setting and compliance mechanisms refuse access to labour inspectors. Not surprisingly the same employers absolutely refuse access to trade unions. If the supply chains are transparent and proven to be fair and sustainable, why is there so much legal action taken to prevent access by labour inspectors or unions?

Building an effective system labour inspection in agriculture requires capacity – institutional, budgetary and personnel. This means that the same agri-food companies that claim to commit to sustainability must pay corporate taxes and stop tax avoidance measures. The must also stop leveraging local governments for subsidies and tax holidays. Even if just some of the financial resources currently going into to the branding and promotion of food products as ethical through private sector certification is diverted to public resources, then there is a greater possibility  to make these guarantees a reality.