PhD Interview Series
How to mainstream a living income for farmers in agricultural value chains

DoIP Spotlight: Heleen Tiemersma

In a monthly interview series, the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative will turn the spotlights on their PhD candidates. Learn more about their research projects, their link with inclusive prosperity and long term goals. This edition features Heleen Tiemersma who is studying if and how a fair payment of farmers and workers in global value chains can be realized through legal and managerial approaches. 

What is your research about?

My research is about whether, and if so, how legal and managerial approaches can reinforce each other to mainstream payment of living income in global value chains. I take the perspective of buying companies/chain leaders and financial institutions and focus on agricultural value chains.
My research starts from the notion that most of our food is produced by farmers and workers who earn an income or wage on which they can hardly survive. They are not able to cover the costs of basic needs for themselves and their families, such as healthy food, housing, and health care. Earning a so called ‘living income’ (or ‘living wage’) is a basic human right and is seen as indispensable to the realization of other human rights and of quite a number of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
These days societal pressure is put on so called ‘chain leaders’ such as Unilever, Nestlé, and Ahold Delhaize to close the ‘living income gap’. They are expected to work with their suppliers towards paying a living income to the farmers they purchase from. In addition, financial institutions, as enablers of business operations, are increasingly expected to influence their corporate clients and investee companies towards this goal.
Today, only a few multinationals have living income/wage policies in place. Some of them now have combined efforts in sector and cross sector partnerships. Mainstreaming living income in global value chains is considered to be a wicked problem. The wickedness includes the transnational nature of value chains across multiple jurisdictions, absence of (effective) state regulation, developing countries using low wages as a way to compete, and suppliers that work for multiple enterprises and local markets that do not have a living income/wage strategy. In order to ‘tackle’ a wicked problem literature indicates that a collaborative, cross sector, and multi-disciplinary approach is needed to achieve the necessary impact.

How to mainstream a living income for farmers in agricultural value chains – taking a combined legal and managerial approach

How are you progressing so far and what are your main findings?

So far, I have looked into the underlying theory of change of collaborative living income initiatives. The main preliminary finding is here that many of these initiatives seem to lack the ambition and potential to mainstream a living income. In many cases companies participate to realize some initial results through experimentation and learning. However, in most cases the intent and conditions for mainstreaming are not addressed. Furthermore, I looked into the way collaborative change efforts are organized. Many practices regarding sustainable supply chain management have been developed. There are examples of chain leaders that have implemented sustainability improvement programs across their supply chain. In the area of living wage much work has been done with regard to the assessment of a living wage in a specific context. However, a coherent approach that puts all together for the purpose of mainstreaming a living wage seems to be lacking.
From a legal perspective, I have focused on supply chain contracts. It is now common practice that chain leaders embed sustainability and human rights requirements within contracts with their suppliers. On the one hand, through their legalizing effect, these clauses can be considered as an effective instrument for mainstreaming. On the other hand, they often shift all responsibility for violation of sustainability and human rights standards onto the supplier. Literature suggests that these contracts can be improved by starting from ‘shared responsibility’ and formalize the collaboration to mainstream sustainable outcomes. My finding here is that collaborative transformation, which is needed to address wicked problems, is not part of supply chain contracts.

In what way is your research project contributing to inclusive prosperity?

This project aligns with the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative in starting from the concept of a living income/wage for all. I hope to give a voice to farmers and workers who experience negative impacts of business activities (low income/wages) and often have no access to redress and remediation.

What is the added value in doing your PhD at the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative?

I very much like the interdisciplinary approach of the Initiative, bringing together scholars from law, business and philosophy. The monthly meetings – with really nice and critical colleagues – are inspiring and motivate to cross the borders of your own (in my case legal) discipline. The Initiative provides a fertile ground for my research.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I hope my research will have societal relevance in further developing the idea of how legal and managerial approaches can be combined to contribute to mainstreaming sustainable outcomes for workers and communities. In addition, I hope to support the relevance of interdisciplinary research.

PhD student
More information

Promotor: Prof. Martijn Scheltema (ESL)
2nd Promotor: Prof. Rob van Tulder (RSM)

Starting date of PhD: October 2018
Expected end date: October 2023