Our collaboration with Axfood, Axfoundation, Rolryz & UNIL
In 2015, Axfood realised that their Punjab basmati rice was dark red on almost all risk parameters; child labour, women's situation, working conditions, water scarcity, pesticides and vulnerability to climate change. Axfood therefore contacted Oxfam to help investigate the situation in the area where the rice is purchased. A year later, the study was completed and the concerns were confirmed. Small farmers growing basmati rice were often trapped in debt to the village middleman. High interest rates kept the farmers in poverty. When women took jobs during the rice planting season, they endured harsh working conditions. In addition, there was sometimes harassment and harmful working conditions.
Together with Axfood, Axfoundation and the supplier Rol-Ryz, work began to improve conditions.
Working in the rice fields of Punjab is hard and risky. Snake and insect bites are common, and it is not uncommon for pesticides and fertilisers to be used without regard for the impact on people and the environment. To improve the situation of rice field workers, we are now working together to ensure fair wages and better working conditions for rice workers, including organising farmers into farmers' organisations in ten villages, with at least 50% participation by women. Knowledge of the sustainability standards for rice is being brought to farmers so they can reduce environmental and social abuses and get better pay for their rice. The aim has been to involve all actors in the supply chain to ensure that crops are grown more sustainably and that farmers and workers know their rights and earn fair wages.
Farmers organise and women take their place
The project involves farmers organising themselves into farmers' organisations in ten villages, with at least 50 per cent women's participation. Knowledge of rice sustainability standards is being disseminated to farmers so that they can reduce environmental and social abuses and get better prices for their rice. In January, our partner organisation Axfood travelled to Pakistan to check on the progress of the rice project. Kristina Areskog Bjurling is the Sustainability Manager at Axfood and one of the people who were there.
Water a key issue for the sustainability of rice production
Rice requires large amounts of water and the water table in Punjab is steadily falling.
Using the new methods, including direct seeding of rice, can save up to 30% of water. The new contacts made in the project have also made sales easier for farmers. In addition, through a partnership with Matco, the rice exporter, 200 of the farmers in the project area will be able to sell their rice directly to them at a better price than before. Workers' rights are also a key element in improving conditions for rice farmers.
"I have worked for a long time planting rice and it is hard work. Before this project, I didn't know that those of us who are seasonal workers without land also have rights."
- Female farmer
"One of my strongest impressions from Pakistan is the women in the village of Pindi Ratan Sing. The female chairperson told us that they now meet and discuss common problems and solutions and that for the first time the women dare to speak out and be active in the discussions in the village. My first reaction was that this must be too good to be true. Could it be that they have faked the meeting because we are there visiting? But as more women expressed similar stories and even the men talked about how they feel they can now make better joint decisions, I realised it was genuine. This is happening for real."
- Kristina Areskog Bjurling, Sustainability Manager Axfood
Pilot project on living income
Despite these efforts, farmers in Pakistan did not have an income to live on, a living wage. A living income is defined as "the net income required for a household in a particular location to afford a decent standard of living for all members of that household", and is a human right.
In a unique collaboration, Oxfam therefore brought together the entire supply chain for a pilot project aimed at increasing the income of the small-scale farmers who grew the rice. This was done by Axfood and UNIL paying a premium directly to the farmers instead of going through intermediaries.
The project ran between 2020 and 2022 and significantly increased farmers' incomes.
"We farmers are very happy to receive this support. It is the growing season and we needed financial support to buy seeds and fertilizer. We believe that the quality of the rice field will improve."
- Farmer who participated in the project
At the same time, Oxfam is clear that the implementation of the premiums will not come without difficulties and will require careful consideration to succeed. The project is only one of the pieces of the puzzle needed to achieve the goal of more equitable trading systems.
Read the results and lessons learned from the project in our report below.