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Charity alleges supermarket supply chain abuse

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Chains such as Lidl, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons are all using suppliers who subject workers to poor conditions, Oxfam has claimed

Poor pay and harsh working conditions are common on farms and plantations that supply tea or fruit to global supermarkets.

Chains such as Lidl, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons are all using suppliers who subject workers to poor conditions, according to new research published by Oxfam.

The research, including in-depth interviews with workers in India and Brazil and a survey of workers in five other countries, highlights how the supermarkets’ relentless drive to cut costs and maximise profits is fuelling poverty, abuse and gender discrimination in their supply chains.

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.

Aldi, Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s confirmed that they source their own brand tea from companies whose suppliers include the estates visited and Lidl was amongst other global supermarkets who source tea from the Assam region. Walmart, who own Asda, responded and neither denied or confirmed links.

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 on grape, melon and mango farms that supply supermarkets including Lidl and Sainsbury’s and previously Tesco and Morrisons. Walmart again neither denied or confirmed links.

Rachel Wilshaw, Oxfam ethical trade manager, said: “Despite some pockets of good practice, supermarkets’ relentless pursuit of profits continues to fuel poverty and human rights abuses in their supply chains. Supermarkets must do more to end exploitation, pay all their workers a living wage, ensure women get a fair deal and be more transparent about where they source their products.”

Oxfam also found that supermarkets are taking the largest share of the price paid by shoppers, at the expense of workers. Of the 79 pence paid by shoppers for a pack of 100g black Assam tea in the UK, supermarkets and tea brands receive 49 pence while workers collectively receive just three pence. If workers on tea estates in Assam received just five pence more of the retail price, they could be paid a living wage.

Wilshaw said: “Supermarkets are snapping up the lion’s share of the price we pay at the till but the workers who toil for hours to harvest tea and fruit face inhumane working conditions and are paid so little they can’t even feed their families.”

A separate Oxfam survey of over 500 workers on farms and plantations in the Philippines, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Peru and the US also adds to the growing evidence that poor wages and abuse are rife across the food sector. The survey found that three quarters of workers said that they were not paid enough to cover basic needs such as food and housing. Over a third said they were not protected from injury or harm at work and were not able to take a toilet break or have a drink of water when they needed it.

The research was produced as part of Oxfam’s global Behind the Barcodes campaign which aims to improve the lives of the millions of people around the world producing food for supermarkets who are trapped in poverty and face brutal working conditions.

Peter Andrews, head of sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: "Supermarkets in the UK are spearheading actions aimed at improving the lives of the millions of people across the globe who contribute to the retail supply chain.

"Our members are working hard to address existing injustices and continue to collaborate internationally with NGOs, business groups and government on this vital issue."