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Oxfam Calling on Major Supermarkets to Do More to End Human Suffering in Supply Chains

Home page image: After working on fishing boats for many years, Sornlak lost his arm in an accident when the sleeve of his shirt got entangled in a piece of machinery after he was asked to do a job he wasn’t familiar with. | Image credit: Suthep Kritsanavarin/Oxfam / Main article image: Shrimp at an auction site in Indonesia. | Image credit: Adrian Mulya/Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia

In its new campaign, Behind the Barcodes, Oxfam shines a light on the millions of women and men trapped in poverty and facing brutal working conditions while producing the food on our supermarket shelves

In Ripe for Change, a corresponding report released today, Oxfam outlines how supermarkets, including Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons, Costco, Whole Foods and Ahold Delhaize — the parent company to US retailers such as Food Lion, Giant and Stop & Shop — are increasingly squeezing the price they pay their suppliers, despite billion-dollar profits in the food industry. This, coupled with the weakening influence of small-scale farmers and workers is causing economic exploitation, suffering, inequality and poverty, according to Oxfam.

“Human suffering should never be an ingredient in our food, yet millions of people producing the food we buy at supermarkets like Stop & Shop, Giant, and even socially conscious Whole Foods, are working in appalling and unsafe conditions for shockingly little pay,” said Irit Tamir, Director of Oxfam America's Private Sector Department. “Working in dangerous conditions, earning low wages and living in poverty, these workers can hardly feed their families all while supermarket giants are capturing an increasing share of the money we spend at the check-out and supermarket executives are enjoying big profits. It’s time for the biggest supermarkets to respect the rights of the people who produce our food.”

In the report, Oxfam highlights how the eight largest publicly owned supermarket chains in the world generated nearly a trillion dollars in sales in 2016, including $22 billion in profits, of which $15 billion were returned to shareholders. At the same time, supermarkets are keeping an increasingly growing share of the money their consumers spend, while the share that reaches workers and food producers has fallen, sometimes to less than 5 percent.

Oxfam also conducted a five-country survey of workers and small-scale farmers, revealing that the majority struggle to feed themselves and their families. In South Africa over 90 percent of surveyed women workers on grape farms reported not having enough to eat in the previous month, and in Italy 75 percent of women workers on fruit and vegetable farms said they, or a family member, had missed meals in the previous month because they could not afford sufficient food. Another survey found that the average earnings of small-scale farmers and workers in the supply chains of some sample common food products — from South African grapes, to Peruvian avocados, to Indian tea — is not enough for a decent standard of living, and where women make up most of the workforce, the gap is greater.

Oxfam also assessed the policies, commitments and reported actions that affect the workers and farmers — especially women — in the food supply chains of some of the biggest and fastest growing supermarkets in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the US. In the US, Oxfam revealed that six of its biggest retailers need to radically improve transparency around their food sourcing policies and demonstrate that their suppliers respect labor and human rights. While some are taking some action around issues of social responsibility, none of the supermarket is providing enough information about its suppliers, making it difficult to ensure that they have conducted proper due diligence on human rights risks in their supply chains. The results also show that all supermarkets can do much more to empower workers within their supply chains, such as promoting and providing living wages and proactively engaging trade unions in sourcing countries.

Oxfam and the Sustainable Seafood Alliance looked in detail at working conditions at some of the biggest shrimp processors and exporters in Thailand and Indonesia, respectively, which supply some of the biggest supermarkets in the U.S. and Europe, including Ahold Delhaize, Aldi North and South, Lidl and Whole Foods, among others.  Workers described unsafe conditions, poverty wages, strictly controlled bathroom and water breaks, and verbal abuse. In Thailand, over 90 percent of seafood processing workers surveyed said they went without enough food in the previous month. Around 80 percent of workers in these plants are women. Meanwhile, Oxfam calculated that it would take a woman processing shrimp at a typical plant in Indonesia or Thailand more than 4,000 years to earn what the chief executive at a top US supermarket earns in a year.

“When we were menstruating, we couldn’t change pads, because during work we couldn’t bring anything in,” said Melati, one of the tens of seafood factory workers interviewed by the Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia. Melati also shared that she suffered chemical burns on her arms from having to clean with chlorine without adequate protection.

Oxfam’s global campaign seeks to mobilize consumers to call for an end to the inhumane treatment and suffering of the women and men who grow, process and pack the food that we buy in our supermarkets. Globally, Oxfam is demanding that supermarkets radically improve transparency in the sourcing of food; know, show and act on the risk of human rights violations faced by women and men in supermarket supply chains; guarantee opportunities for women, such as equal pay for equal work and ending violence and discrimination against women working in food supply chains; and more fairly share their significant revenues with the women and men who produce our food.

In the US, Oxfam is calling on Whole Foods, Stop & Shop and Giant to work to ensure that workers who farm, fish and process the food they sell on their shelves can work free of abuse, harassment, discrimination and unfair treatment; have a safe place to work; and have the right to speak out against the suffering they experience, free from retaliation.

“With their huge global reach and influence, supermarkets like Whole Foods could and should play a huge role in reducing poverty, hunger and inequality in their supply chains,” Tamir continued. “No one should suffer or go hungry to bring food to our plates. Supermarkets can afford to pay producers a fair price — just a few cents more would change the lives of women and men that make our food.”


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