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The global food systems are built on the exploitation of workers and the environment, says researcher Vladimir Bogoeski. ‘It’s happening a lot closer to home than people think.’ He receives a Veni grant to take a close look at sustainable alternatives of food production in the Netherlands.

You say workers in the food industry are being exploited. What type of situations are we talking about?

‘Intuitively people think about the exploitation of workers in food production in Asia or other parts of the world, but it is happening a lot closer to home than people expect. You can think of the asparagus fields in Germany or the meat and dairy industry in the Netherlands. Workers, often from Eastern Europe, are working and living in exploitative and degrading conditions in shared and overpriced accommodations. We know these conditions are created by law: for example, the tight contracts between food producers and retailers and the social security rules that are excluding certain migrant workers from health insurance and social benefits. This creates a labour force that is easily exploitable.’

So is this just a matter of tweaking the law to prevent exploitation?

‘We should challenge the whole way of thinking. The current system disregards the value of labour in food production entirely. With the project, I’m trying to understand what type of labour is sustainable in food production. To answer that question, I’m going to have conversations with farmers and small-scale food producers in the Netherlands who are already experimenting with new ways of farming and producing food. It’s very much a bottom-up project. The next step is to see how the law can help make this possible. Are there fundamental elements of law preventing improvements towards sustainable labour in food production? To what extent can we intervene using current legal frameworks? That will be the theoretical part of my research.’

Copyright: Vladimir Bogoeski
We also know that food production is at the core of environmental destruction in many ways

You will be looking at the environmental side of the food industry as well. How does that relate to the exploitation of labour?

‘There is a momentum to address the labour side of food production because of the bigger environmental discussion. We know about the damaging effects of pesticides, deforestation, polluted land and water. We also know that food production is at the core of environmental destruction in many ways. While the awareness about food production has for understandable reasons centered around its effects on the environment, my project seeks to add the labor dimension to this debate. The current ways of food production are responsible for exploitation in these two different areas, and my project strives to address the labour in connection with the environmental part.’

Doesn’t improving the working conditions and the environmental impact of the food industry simply mean paying more for food?

‘To me, the current position of workers is acute enough to act on. But this is a much-heard argument against improving the conditions: food needs to be available for everyone so we can’t change the system because it might lead to higher prices. I don’t think it’s that simple. Food security has been long used as an excuse not to improve working conditions. There is enough food, that much we know. And there are different ways to improve working conditions without making food less available. I will definitely address this in my research.’

Since the research is taking place in the Netherlands, will you also be looking at the uprising of the Dutch pro-farmers party FarmerCitizenMovement (BBB)?

‘It’s unavoidable to talk about the BBB since I’m looking at the food industry in the Netherlands. I just have to find a good way to incorporate it. Some grievances they express on behalf of farmers in the Netherlands are worth engaging with. It’s good to engage, but it’s also good to bring a scholarly perspective into the debate. That doesn’t mean it will be a top-down commentary because I will base my research on conversations with farmers and food producers. It will just be a different ground up perspective on the discussion on the BBB.’