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Oxfam reveals poverty pay, harsh working conditions & gender discrimination in intl. supermarkets' food supply chains; Includes company responses

Oxfam has released new research, which included in-depth interviews with workers in India and Brazil and a survey of workers in five other countries, revealing widespread labour rights allegations - including poverty pay, harsh working conditions, and gender discrimination - in food production linked to international supermarket supply chains as part of its Behind the Barcodes campaign.

Interviews with workers on 50 tea plantations in Assam revealed that cholera and typhoid are prevalent because workers lack access to toilets and safe drinking water. Half the workers questioned receive ration cards from the government 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 back breaking work a day. On fruit farms in North East Brazil, women with children said they were 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. 

In October 2019, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited the supermarkets named in the reports to respond to the allegations and Oxfam's recommendations. Albertsons, Aldi North, Aldi South, Kroger, Morrisons, REWE Group, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Walmart, and Whole Foods Market responded and their responses are included below.

Edeka Group, Lidl and Plus did not respond. Costco declined to comment.

Albert Heijn (a subsidiary of Ahold Delhaize) and Jumbo were named by Oxfam as having made significant and meaningful commitments on workers’ rights. Jumbo sent us documents (in Dutch) outlining its due diligence process, linked below. 

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Company response
21 October 2019

Sainsbury's response

Author: Sainsbury's

... All our tea sourcing from Assam... is either Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade accredited. We would need more information from Oxfam to investigate the tea estates highlighted in their report... Our suppliers support actions that allow a living wage, recognising that this requires a collaborative effort from different stakeholders across the industry. They promote the PLA reform and thus support producers in achieving a living wage and decent working conditions...

One of the Brazilian companies mentioned in the Oxfam report is an indirect supplier to us. They are noted for their good practices but some unacceptable working conditions are mentioned regarding one of their farms, which we do not source from. Nevertheless, we are following up with the supplier on the allegations. We acknowledge the difficulties with sourcing from Brazil with the current political landscape and we are working to support our suppliers...

... [W]e will be taking the Oxfam recommendations into account and work to understand where we can have the greatest impact for positive change...

Download the full document here

21 October 2019

Walmart's response

Author: Walmart

We believe in promoting shared value through our business operations and that includes supporting our suppliers and advocating for workers in the supply chain.  We appreciate the Oxfam research and report, which sheds light on important issues throughout the food retailing industry and the global supply chains that support it, highlighting areas for improvement as well as recognizing the good work we are doing. 

We believe collaboration is key to creating a more responsible supply chain, and we look forward to continuing to engage with Oxfam on these issues.

Download the full document here

Company response
18 October 2019

Albertsons' response

Author: Albertsons

As a food company that carries thousands of products from around the world, we recognize our responsibility to ensure that our suppliers adhere to our strict policies pertaining to worker rights. We are committed to conducting business in a lawful and ethical manner and expect our vendors to conduct themselves in the same manner. Our engagement with seafood suppliers in Thailand and the Seafood Taskforce, which Oxfam noted, is just one example of this commitment.

We confirmed with Oxfam during their Brazilian fruit and Assam Tea investigation that Albertsons Companies’ Own Brands products are not directly supplied from any of the vendors identified in Oxfam’s investigation.

Company response
18 October 2019

ALDI SOUTH's response

Author: ALDI SOUTH Group

... We are also aware of the particular human rights challenges in the production of tea... [A] proportion of our tea productions are either UTZ/Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade or Organic certified and we are working to increase the percentage of certified tea available to our customers.

... [B]ut we are aware that they may not always identify hidden issues such as forced labour, discrimination or harassment. We therefore commit to adopt an approach to ethical trade that goes beyond compliance and does not rely solely on certification, complementing our approach with additional activity such as our own on-site visits, supplier and producer communication and training, participation in multi-stakeholder initiatives, capacity building and projects on the ground. Introducing permanent improvements to working conditions requires a collaborative approach to ethical trade between ALDI SOUTH and our suppliers....

Over the next five years, we intend to further address issues within our supply chains via a number of measures, including a review of policies and processes, traceability and supply chain mapping, social auditing and certification, further integration of CR criteria into the buying process, participation in multi-stakeholder initiatives and capacity building measures...

The ALDI SOUTH Group shares the core values behind Oxfam’s efforts and we continue to have constructive dialogue with Oxfam.

Download the full document here

Company response
18 October 2019

Kroger's response

Author: Kroger

As articulated in Kroger’s Statement on Human Rights, we take human rights in our operations and our supply chain seriously, and we appreciate our stakeholders bringing these topics to our attention.

Company response
18 October 2019

Morrisons' response

Author: Morrisons

... We have been engaged with Oxfam since the commencement of their Behind the Barcodes campaign and have already made progress in a number of areas ... This resulted in Morrisons being acknowledged in this year's report as being one of three supermarkets who "committed to doing far more than others to ensure respect for workers’ rights in their supply chains". We are also in discussion with the Oxfam team on the development of a long term plan to implement their wider recommendations for retailers.

Oxfam's investigations into conditions in tea and tropical fruit supply chains highlight the significant issues and challenges faced by some agricultural workers on a daily basis. We do not source from the farms mentioned in the Brazil research, and no specific plantations are identified in Assam, meaning we cannot ascertain whether our tea supply chain is directly impacted. However, we are actively engaged with all our suppliers of these products to ensure that adequate due diligence is undertaken to identify risk, and action is taken to protect workers where required...

Download the full document here

Company response
18 October 2019

Tesco's response

Author: Tesco

...We support Oxfam’s clear framework... We are in the process of developing specific actions plans to greater support progress on gender equality and living wages in key supply chains...

All our own label black tea sold in the UK is 100% Rainforest Alliance certified... [W]e also assess each tea producer against defined ethical criteria and we will only source from producers once we are satisfied they meet our minimum requirements... [W]e buy larger volumes of tea from producers who have scored highly in our assessments, ensuring that our purchasing practices align with our approach to human rights.

... [W]e are the only multi retail member of the Ethical Tea Partnership... We are also funding and working in partnership with Unicef and the Ethical Tea Partnership to support women and young people in Assam...

...In September 2019... Tesco... visited several Brazilian suppliers and identified opportunities to improve labour conditions... Tesco is requesting all our sites to promote either the creation of stand-alone worker committees to deal with all labour issues or to broaden the mandate of the health and safety committees. A vital part of this change is to train worker representatives on how to effectively deal with these issues as well as ensuring all workers are made aware of this new service by their elected representatives.

... [W]e have also been engaging SEDEX, SMETA auditors and Rainforest Alliance to improve the quality of auditors...

[I]it is absolutely essential that no worker is being exposed to dangerous chemicals... We will be engaging our suppliers and audit bodies on this matter... Extensive risk-based product testing is done to identify the use of unauthorised chemicals, and we will be enhancing this testing for any products from Northern Brazil as a result of the concerns raised.

Download the full document here

Company response
17 October 2019

Aldi North's response

Author: Aldi North

... We are aware of the particular human rights challenges in the production of tea, including in the Assam state, as identified in the recent Oxfam report. We source tea from the region of Assam exclusively from producers who have been certified by the Rainforest Alliance and Ethical Tea Partnership; the majority of these growers are also certified organic and Fairtrade... 

We will continue to adjust our buying practices to address adverse impacts on human rights. As our tea products are not sourced directly from producers, rather from suppliers who commission the manufacture or import of the products, collaborating with our suppliers is an essential factor in achieving our sustainability goals, resolving problems and driving continuous improvement along our entire supply chains...

In the near future, we will further address the challenges identified by undertaking a range of measures, including but not limited to revising existing policies and processes, ensuring greater supply chain traceability, increasing social audits and certifications, further integrating our CR criteria into the purchasing process and participating in multi-stakeholder initiatives...

Download the full document here

Company response
17 October 2019

Whole Foods' response

Author: Whole Foods Market

Oxfam’s latest report does not accurately reflect Whole Foods Market’s long-standing efforts to address human rights and labor issues in our supply chain, including instituting programs like our Whole Trade Guarantee that ensure fair and safe working conditions for suppliers across the globe. We have a proven track record of taking immediate action with suppliers when potential concerns surface and remain committed to supply chain transparency and ethical sourcing, which are areas we continue to invest in. We are disappointed that Oxfam chose to selectively publish the information we provided on our business practices in response to their report, and that they chose not to initially share any level of detail on the allegations made against specific farms...

Download the full document here

16 October 2019

India: Tea association finds factual errors in Oxfam's report on labour rights violations in the industry

Author: Special Correspondent, The Hindu

"Tea association counters Oxfam report on labour rights violation in Assam", 17 October 2019

Report left out the share of the price paid to a producer providing employment to the workers as well as the non-cash component of their wages, it says

The Indian Tea Association (ITA) has countered an Oxfam report on plantation labour rights violation, saying it left out the share of the price paid to a producer providing employment to the workers as well as the non-cash component of their wages.

Oxfam, a confederation of 20 NGOs focussing on the alleviation of global poverty, a week ago published a report on “Addressing the human cost of Assam Tea – an agenda for change to respect, protect and fulfil human rights on Assam tea plantations”.

The study by Oxfam India and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, based on interviews with 510 plantation labourers in 50 tea estates across Assam, said that the workers earned ₹137-167 despite working for over 13 hours a day.

The study also said supermarkets and tea brands in India “typically capture over two-thirds of the price paid by consumers for Assam tea in India – with just 7.2% remaining for workers on tea estates”.

...In a letter to Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar on Wednesday, ITA secretary general Arijit Raha said Oxfam’s study came to conclusions on issues based on findings in some tea gardens that did not reflect the true picture of the industry..

The ITA said Oxfam exaggerated the working hours of plantation workers by saying they slogged for 13 hours or more. None in plucking worked more than seven hours a day, it said. 

Read the full post here