Oxfam uncovers supply chain abuses among global supermarkets

Credit: iStock/KuntalSaha

Oxfam has found evidence of poverty pay, abuse and gender discrimination in supply chains of global supermarkets.

News of such conditions come at a time when risk managers are becoming increasingly involved in environmental, social and corporate governance issues.

Oxfam found poor pay and harsh working conditions in farms and plantations that supply tea or fruit to global supermarkets including Lidl, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons.

The charity’s research included in-depth interviews with workers in India and Brazil, and surveyed workers in five other countries.

It said the findings shows how supermarkets’ “relentless drive to cut costs and maximise profits is fuelling poverty, abuse and gender discrimination in their supply chains”.

Interviews with workers on 50 tea plantations in Assam, India revealed that cholera and typhoid are prevalent because workers lack access to toilets and safe drinking water.

Half the workers questioned receive government ration cards because wages are so low and women workers, who are often in the lowest-paid, most labour-intensive jobs, regularly clocked up 13 hours of hard work a day.

Aldi, Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s confirmed to Oxfam that they source their own-brand tea from companies whose suppliers include the estates visited. Lidl is among other global supermarkets that source tea from the Assam region. Walmart, which owns Asda, responded to Oxfam and neither denied or confirmed links to the region.

Oxfam’s investigations also found that woman and children working on fruit farms in northeast Brazil are forced to rely on relatives or government support to feed their families outside the harvest season.

Workers also reported developing allergies and serious skin diseases as a result of using pesticides and other chemicals without adequate protection, on grape, melon and mango farms that supply Lidl and Sainsbury’s, and previously Tesco and Morrisons. Walmart again neither denied or confirmed links.

“Despite some pockets of good practice, supermarkets’ relentless pursuit of profits continues to fuel poverty and human rights abuses in their supply chains. Supermarkets must do more to end exploitation, pay all their workers a living wage, ensure women get a fair deal and be more transparent about where they source their products,” said Rachel Wilshaw, Oxfam’s ethical trade manager.

The charity’s research also found that workers who made tea in Assam collectively receive just three pence of the 79 pence paid for a 100g pack in the UK. If workers received five pence more of the retail price, they could be paid a living wage, Oxfam said.

“Supermarkets are snapping up the lion’s share of the price we pay at the till but the workers who toil for hours to harvest tea and fruit face inhumane working conditions and are paid so little they can’t even feed their families,” said Ms Wilshaw.

A separate Oxfam survey of more than 500 workers on farms and plantations in the Philippines, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Peru and the US also adds to the growing evidence that poor wages and abuse are rife across the food sector.

Three quarters of workers surveyed said that they were not paid enough to cover basic needs such as food and housing. More than a third said they were not protected from injury or harm at work and were not able to take a toilet break or have a drink of water when they needed it.

Commercial Risk is holding a one-day Supply Chain Risk Management conference in London on 25 November 2019. Find out more about the programme and book your space here.