It is easy to feel guilty when the workers who produced our food receive extremely low wages. But guilt does not solve any problems, writes Vsevolod Lukashenok. Photo: Bernadette Wurzinger, Pixabay


Feelings of guilt do not create decent working conditions

In mid-October, the global aid organization Oxfam launched a campaign for decent working conditions in the food industry. The campaign had a simple and clear structure - to serve a three-course meal for only 2 kroner. The price corresponds to the sum that the workers who have grown and picked the raw materials receive for the food served. "The world's most unfair restaurant" was Oxfam's slogan for the campaign that linked to the UN's global sustainability goal of decent working conditions.

I visited the restaurant.  An decorated greenhouse set up on Norrmalmstorg, central Stockholm. The campaign's slogan was written on the glass walls and eight visitors were served at a time. The powerful words attracted the eyes of passers-by. The word choice was certainly carefully thought out based on the purpose of not only arousing interest, but also compassion and some frustration. But above all, the words evoked what we tend to feel when we find out about injustices - a feeling of guilt. The campaign would trigger visitors' feelings of guilt linked to eating food that was produced in an unfair way, food that is full of suffering.

And that's true. Workers in the food industry are needed so that raw materials can end up on our plates. Nevertheless, the wages of workers in countries such as Pakistan, Brazil and South Africa, as Oxfam mentions, are almost non-existent. The consumption of the rich countries rests on a distorted order of power. High-income countries need labor (and food!) And low- and middle-income countries satisfy the need to get at least a small part of the rich countries' capital. Oxfam's campaign, like many others, forgets this fundamental relationship between countries.

For the tips I received during the restaurant visit were to feel, think, be aware and discuss. This is how solutions to the world's injustices often sound. Although Oxfam, in connection with this promotion, writes that "Politics, business and civil society have a very important role," the discussion at the restaurant was limited to considering us visitors as consumers whose greatest force for change lies in thinking about their consumption. This reinforces the feeling that change is only possible through consumption. Instead, it could be an opportunity to lift Oxfam's requirements for corporate responsibility and legislation.

We feel guilty that the rice costs SEK 20 per kilo or that food from an expensive restaurant in all probability does not generate higher income for the workers who make our eating habits possible. However, our feelings of guilt do not create decent working conditions. Oxfam's role should be to emphasize that structural measures are needed.


This is a chronicle. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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