Report: UK supermarkets failing to protect supply chain workers’ rights

The UK's largest supermarkets "routinely" implement weak human rights policies in their supply chains, "exerting relentless pressure" on their suppliers while "trapping" overseas workers in poverty, a new report from Oxfam has claimed.

The study accuses the nation’s “Big Four” grocers, namely Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons, of lagging on supply chain transparency and traceability.

The charity’s Ripe for Change: Ending Human Suffering in Supermarket Supply Chains report, published on Friday (June 22), rates six British supermarkets on how they disclosed their human rights policies, how their workers and farmers were paid and protected and their actions to champion women’s rights in their supply chains.

Oxfam claimed that the “Big Four”, along with Aldi South Group and Lidl UK, were among the global food retailers that are “increasingly squeezing the price they pay their suppliers”, leaving supply chain workers overseas facing “brutal” working conditions and going hungry.

The report states that the share of profits that reaches workers and producers for the chains is sometimes less than 5%, with British supermarkets routinely receiving almost ten times more of the checkout price of popular products such as teabags, bananas and orange juice than the farmers who helped produce them.

Oxfam concluded the study with a scorecard ranking the six British supermarkets, with the charity basing its ratings on surveys of hundreds of small-scale farmers and workers in supply chains across five countries, which it carried out in collaboration with the Sustainable Seafood Alliance.

All of the UK retailers scored poorly, with Tesco taking first place despite receiving an overall rating of just 23% for its human rights actions.

Sainsbury’s and Asda took second and third place with 18% and 17% respectively, while Lidl UK and Morrisons came in joint fourth position with a 5% overall score.

The Aldi South Group, which Aldi UK is part of, came last with a combined score of 1% after receiving 0% ratings for its transparency and worker protection.

Oxfam GB’s director of policy, Matthew Spencer, said the findings proved that corporations “need to get serious about supporting decent work”.

“Global businesses can help lift millions of people out of poverty, but the food industry currently rewards shareholder wealth over the work of millions of women and men with supermarkets ignoring the hidden suffering behind their food supply chains,” Spencer said.

Call to action

Oxfam released the report to launch its new ‘Behind the Barcodes’ campaign, which urges supermarkets to crack down on supply chain abuses and increase transparency about where their products and ingredients come from.

Several of the named supermarkets told edie they have put additional human rights measures in place and are working towards creating new sustainable supply chain strategies.

A Lidl UK spokesperson confirmed that the chain has conducted a human rights review of its global supply chain, expanded its Supplier Code of Conduct to cover modern slavery and created a dedicated team to address reported abuses in the wake of the report.

“We welcome Oxfam’s report and recommendations, which we have reviewed in detail,” the spokesperson said.

“We recognise that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done and are committed to continuing to work collaboratively with both Oxfam and the wider industry, to drive further improvements throughout the supply chain.”

Meanwhile, Aldi South Group maintained that it “operates with honesty and integrity wherever it does business around the world”, with a spokesperson adding that the business has “comprehensive” policies and processes in place to protect its workers.

Asda also defended its existing policies and processes; a spokesperson told edie that the chain was “absolutely committed to empowering workers and creating positive change throughout supply chains” and would continue to work with international partners to drive improvement in these areas.

Tesco declined to comment on the report and referred edie to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), where a spokesperson said they believed the findings proved that the UK’s supermarkets are “some of the most progressive in this area globally”.

The BRC spokesperson said that Oxfam’s investigation “demonstrates how complex challenges of respecting human rights in supply chains are”, adding that the Consortium welcomes the report’s recommendations.

edie has approached Sainsbury’s and Morrisons for comment on Oxfam’s findings but at the time of publishing was yet to receive response.

 Sarah George

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