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Page last updated at 10:04 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 11:04 UK

The far-away food factories

Stacey and Jess

The plight of sweat shop workers in the clothes industry has been well documented, but what about those who toil in exotic countries to satisfy our exotic palates? One student tasted life on the gourmet production lines.

A huge percentage of the cheap food we eat in the UK comes from South-East Asia, where it is harvested and processed before being placed neatly in the supermarkets where we don't even have to think about its journey.

My name is Stacey and I'm a fashion student. When I got an offer, along with five others, of travelling to this corner of the world to experience the conditions people working in the food industry face every day, I was curious. The experience has changed my life.

We were guests of the food producers but we received no special treatment. We were expected to catch, harvest and produce products we take for granted in the UK, as well as eat, sleep, and exist on the same wages the food workers live on, typically about £3 a day.

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As far as the factory owners are concerned, the food quality is high, conforming to the strict standards set by the EU, so they had nothing to hide. And the wages they are paying their workforce are of minimum wage, so nothing to hide there either.

The first factory we found ourselves in was a tuna cannery in Sulawesi, Indonesia. I was shocked by the sheer size of the place, filled with robotic workers all looking identical and not looking up from their work for a second.

We were shown to our work stations, and handed a cooked whole tuna. We had to open the fish in two, de-bone it and scrape out all the insides.

The work was so fiddly because you couldn't afford to waste a single scrap. Only the red meat could be removed, if you lost any white meat you were shouted at, which happened to us a lot.

Stacey bones a tuna fish
The heat and smell of the tuna factory were overwhelming

I was hit by the heat, then the smell, closely followed by the long tedious hours.

When one of my fellow volunteers fainted due to the heat, I was terrified. It made me realise how dangerous these conditions were to work in day in, day out.

We had to wash the fish blood and guts out of our hair using a well in the back garden.

When shopping for food - anything but fish heads - we were shocked to learn a day's wages had earned us nothing more than a chocolate bar.

Next on the agenda were the prawn ponds in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Our living quarters was a wooden shack in a remote part of a jungle.

The work consisted of us maintaining the prawn ponds. A typical day for us was digging for clay and building higher mud walls, to keep the prawns inside the pond.

Crab wound

After days of rolling around in these disgusting muddy stinking ponds, we eventually got to see how to harvest them. This was a finely tuned art. You had to time this just right because of tidal movements.

So after working a 12-hour day in the ponds, we had a couple of hours sleep before getting back up to do the harvesting. While I was trying to catch a net of prawns, a crab managed to scratch my leg. It really hurt, but I felt ridiculous mentioning it, because the locals seem so toughened to the conditions.

Then we moved to the rice fields of Isan, in the north of Thailand. I had no idea what rice looked like to start with. I think that shows how much we rely on supermarkets.

Boycotting cheap food made in these countries is not the answer

We were shown the rice field, which looked scarily similar to the prawn ponds. The work consisted of us pulling up the rice with the whole root intact. This took us a whole day, with the help of the locals.

The next day we had to replant this rice with a bigger space in between, to allow it to grow. It felt like we were getting nowhere. Seeing how fast the locals worked just highlighted how useless we were.
The work was terribly physical, 12-hour days in 38-degree heat. It got to the point where I really didn't think I could bend one more time, I felt like I was going to snap in half.

The more and more I discovered about the food industry the more I wanted to share my experiences as widely as possible when I got home to the UK. Why don't people speak about these workers? Why has the fashion industry had such a spotlight on it, but not this?

Prawn pond
High mud walls help catch prawns

The view of food has changed greatly in the past five years but attention has been largely focused on the journey - the air miles - rather than the conditions where the food is sourced.

Boycotting cheap food made in these countries is not the answer. Buying Fair Trade is a start, but I think the answer is to bring in laws that raise standards, to make sure food we buy in the UK is being produced by workers that are living decent lives, rather then just surviving for our benefit.

It is important to say I was never once put off the food we were producing. Cleanliness and hygiene standards were paramount and I have continued to enjoy tuna, prawns, chicken and rice just as much if not more then before this experience.

I look at food in a different way now. I see food as fuel, not as something to gorge on purely for pleasure. Since returning to the UK, I am faced with a moral dilemma every time I visit a supermarket. I look for the fairer option, but if it's not available I feel helpless.

Stacey in a rice field
Picking rice was hard on the back

I still want to support the fantastic people we met in SE Asia, but by doing this I'm supporting the system that I'm disagreeing with, a system which shows little regard for workers' rights.

British consumers are massively benefiting from the cheap labour of these workers, and it's something I feel we have simply come to accept by pushing it to the back of our minds where no-one can see it.

Well, I find this too hard to swallow. If there are such strict rules and regulations concerning food quality, why can't we have rules put in place to ensure the lives of the workers are a better quality too?

Below is a selection of your comments.

Brilliant, absolutely right. We don't think about things because they are too far away. Also, though we don't always have alternatives, so any changes must affect the whole food chain, from production to supply to consumers. I'm desperate for people to take this seriously, but see all my friends say 'I want, so I'll have' and not look at the issues behind the product.
Erica, Bucks, UK

Since most of the rice production is concentrated in Asia it's hardly surprising that Asian workers are producing it! It's not our fault that their wages are poor - its up to them to fight for fair wages and for their governments, not ours, to move to introduce legislation to ensure a fair days pay for a fair days work. Time the West stopped meddling and do-gooders like Stacey and her cronies concentrated on less-fashionable issues at home.
Susie Squeegee, Leicester, England

The economics of food supply and consumer demands for cheap food means costs are cut through cheap labour, addition of cheap bulking agents ie: fat and sugar, or excessive over-production, necessitating all the BOGOFs in the supermarkets while half the world starves. In my view the food industry could be the next disaster as the continued pressure from the retailers for cheaper and cheaper food and the methods used to achieve it are just not sustainable. We need to change our views and our habits, and the industry needs to take a more moral approach. The distribution and nutritional value of food needs a major rethink otherwise we will continue the spiral towards obesity and ill health in the west, along-side the obscene reality of starvation for millions of others.

If you purchase the "fairer option" the people mentioned here will be out of work.
Joshua, Cardiff, UK

It is also access to cheap foreign food on such a scale that makes it possible for the UK to support a much bigger population than it could feed with home grown produce. This in turn drives up the cost of living here thus achieving some kind of balance. If the food stops coming, then what?
Steve, Margate England

It's a shame! Education does not any longer provide a balanced General Knowledge view of out planet nor its people. To have the freedom to roam is wonderful but really, did they not read about where they were going? Its economics and history? The development of mankind? Do they see gambolling lambs and never think of the Sunday roast? Cheap shoes and not see sweatshops? The conscience may prick a little but I note with despair that they still buy…..
Bob, Rhos, Conwy

Gradually we are becoming aware of what our creature comforts mean.

I try to source local products, but it is difficult since supermarkets provide minimal information and local farm shops have become hideously expensive - and even then they are often not selling local produce. I often see a "produced locally" sticker, which means the others are not. Perhaps a new player in the supermarket war could solve much of the problem by offering only local goods and stating where they were produced. That would not solve the problems of the SE Asia workers of course, in fact it would leave many of them unemployed. But there are two separate issues here and buying local food solves the environmental one and fundamentally changes the question on the global workers' rights issue.
Chris, uk

OK, and how exactly does the fascist Blair-Brown junta propose to regulate wages for rice farmers in Isarn? Since when has Thailand been under the control of New Labour? If they were paid the UK minimum wage they would be the richest people in Isarn:) Nice joined up thinking as always from student idealists.
David Jones, Worthing

Paying employees the minimum that the employer can get away with is the norm in any form of manufacturing and agriculture worldwide. It is not so much a case of the workers being underpaid as one of many people being grossly overpaid who do not produce anything ie politicians, government employees, media, doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. basically anyone who works in an office and receives a salary of over £25k.
Keith, Welshpool,UK

Firstly how wonderful to see how food is grown at source. You only have to see how popular allotments are again with the younger generation in UK to know that people are thinking about what they eat more not only for health aspect but for cost too. Cost to environment and our health. Having worked in the herb and spice industry where most of the goods came from 3rd world countries and having heard the horror stories about the conditions people lived in there, I am 100% behind Stacey here. I too try and be selective with my shopping...not always easy, especially with small mouths to feed. I would be happy to sign a petition for example.
Maxine, Birmingham, UK

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