Oxfam found evidence of poverty and lack of health and safety for mango pickers in Brazil. © Images/SambaPhoto
Oxfam found evidence of poverty and lack of health and safety for mango pickers in Brazil. © Images/SambaPhoto

'Abusive supply chains' fuelled by retailers

10 October 2019

Farm workers worldwide that supply tea, fruit and vegetables to large supermarkets around the world have been working in unsanitary, harsh conditions on below minimum wages, according to an Oxfam report. 

An investigation by Oxfam has revealed that supermarkets, including Aldi, Whole Foods, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, “are fuelling poverty and abuse in their supply chains” in countries such as India, Brazil and the US. 

This is due to retailers' constant cost cutting and focus on maximising profits to the detriment of the supply chain, said Oxfam. 

Winnie Byanyima, executive director at Oxfam International, said: “Supermarkets must open up about where they buy their products from and they must ensure that their buying practices are not fuelling poverty and abuse, that workers in their supply chains are paid a living wage and have safe and dignified working conditions; and that women workers are free from discrimination.”

Tea workers across 50 plantations in Assam, India, have suffered from sanitary diseases such as cholera and typhoid due to lack of access to toilets and safe drinking water, found Oxfam. 

Half of the workers are on “Below Poverty Line”, a government subsidiary ration card, as the wages are too low. 

Harvest workers on grape, melon and mango farms in northeast Brazil also experience poverty conditions, with workers developing allergies and skin diseases due to lack of safety equipment against pesticides, according to Oxfam researchers.

Sweet potato farmers in North Carolina admitted to being “too scared to speak out for fear of losing their jobs”, despite having to work up to 14 hours a day in harsh conditions with limited toilet use and low wages.

Investors have called out retailers for lack of transparency and unethical conditions in supply chains and unfair pricing power, through a statement signed by 50 asset management firms worth around $3.1trn. 

Supermarkets have been taking an increasing share of retail prices, according to Oxfam analysis. UK supermarkets and tea brands are taking 49pm from a 74p pack of black tea while workers only receive 3p.

Byanyima said: “Supermarkets are snapping up the lion’s share of the price we pay at the till, while workers who toil for hours to grow and harvest tea, fruit and vegetables are paid so little they can’t even feed their own families.”

Chris Laws, head of product & strategy at consultancy Dun & Bradstreet, said: “While NGOs and governments can help provide more granular details to ensure identification of the bad actors and make sure risk assessments are carried out, businesses have a vital role to play too.

“Having robust compliance processes in place and a transparent view of business relationships can help to identify whether suppliers, customers or other partners are involved in modern slavery, corruption, fraud and other nefarious activities.

“Using data and analytics, businesses can help play their part in and eradicating the scourge of modern slavery by ensuring they know exactly who they are doing business with.”

Separately, a report by the Climate Accountability Institute (CAI) has shown that 20 private and publicly-owned companies were collectively responsible for 480bn tonnes of CO2 emissions.

The CAI highlighted the importance of reducing carbon emissions, in alignment with the Paris Agreement to limit temperatures to under 1.5C, and transition towards renewable energy and low-carbon fuels.

“Companies leading this transition will prosper and laggards will perish,” added the CAI.

The top five emission producers (% of global emissions) are:

1. Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia (4.38)

2. Chevron, USA (3.20)

3. Gazprom, Russia (3.19)

4. ExxonMobil, USA (3.09)

5. National Iranian Oil co. (2.63)

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