Kerry McCarthy spoke to SM ahead of a parliamentary debate on modern slavery ©Reuters/Adobe Stock
Kerry McCarthy spoke to SM ahead of a parliamentary debate on modern slavery ©Reuters/Adobe Stock

MP warns against buying cheap food for risk of slavery

17 October 2018

An MP has warned consumers against complacency in buying cheap food ahead of a debate on slavery in supermarket supply chains.

Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East, told SM shoppers should treat cheap food with the same suspicion as cheap clothes for fear of labour abuse in the supply chain. A debate on the issue in the House of Commons coincides with World Anti-Slavery Day.

“We can’t be complacent about where our food comes from. As we have learned to do with cheap clothes – to a certain extent – we need to question the cost and origin,” she said.

“Cheap food comes at a cost – that it’s often cheap because workers are being underpaid, overworked, trafficked or enslaved,” she said.

“The food sector is one of the worst culprits when it comes to modern slavery and other forms of exploitation.

“Cheap food is not the answer to food poverty.”

A former shadow food and environment secretary, McCarthy called on the government to do more to ensure supermarkets complied with current law.

“We need a wider definition of supply chain liability so that real or feigned ignorance of slavery in the supply chain isn’t an excuse,” she said.

A motion, tabled by McCarthy, urges the government to “help ensure tangible steps are taken” to protect workers and farmers in food supply chains.

McCarthy will also address the issue of low pay among supermarket staff in her speech. She told SM about a constituent who had reported a case involving a Tesco worker needing to visit a food bank because she couldn’t afford to eat.

“Last month, a Bristol advice agency manager told us she just been helping a client who couldn’t afford to eat, but couldn’t get to a food bank because it was only open when she was working for Tesco,” her spokesperson said.

Tesco said a new deal for hourly-paid staff would increase pay by 10.5%, from £7.62 to £8.42 per hour by November 2018.

The company said its benefits package including bonus and pension would take average hourly pay to £9.52.

“They [supermarkets] have huge economic power – they could and should do more,” McCarthy added.

In June, an Oxfam report suggested price squeezes by some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, are hurting workers and small-scale farmers in some of the poorest parts of the world.

The charity said supermarkets’ increasing buying power and weakening protection for workers was causing economic exploitation at the bottom of the supply chain.

Workers were often paid below the living wage in their countries and food insecurity was common, despite working in the food supply chain, Oxfam said.

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