by Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East and member of both the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) and Environmental Audit (EAC) Select Committees.
Last month, as part of the UK’s delegation to the Council of Europe, I took the opportunity to raise in the plenary session the serious issue of human rights violations in the agro-food sector.
By virtue of the fact that a handful of corporations dominate the sector (just 50 food manufacturers account for half of global food sales), the potential for workers to be exploited is rife. The threat of production being moved abroad, automation, weak or non-existent unions and a lack of political representation, has left workers around the world vulnerable to exploitation and even violence. And due to the opacity of modern supply chains, the corporations have been able to plead ignorance until – and sometimes also after - being publicly caught out.
Oxfam’s recently released report, Behind the Barcode, has shown that instances of exploitation are not contained to just far away countries with minimal standards and workers’ rights, but that such practices exist also in the UK, and the supply chains which stock UK supermarkets.
Oxfam found that, due to the recent drop in the prices paid by the supermarkets to their suppliers, the risk of human rights violations in supply chains has increased – and women and children are most often bearing the brunt of this.
Squeezed small-scale farmers are resorting to child or unpaid female labour, and the women are often also at further risk of harassment or sexual violence from male supervisors. In South Africa over 90% of surveyed women workers on grape farms reported not having enough to eat in the previous month. In Thailand 54% of the women workers surveyed said there had been no food to eat at home of any kind several times over the previous month.
In both India and Kenya research found that workers earn less than 50% of what they need for a basic but decent standard of living. And where women provide the majority of the labour in a certain sector, the gap between wages and a decent standard of living are greatest.
Closer to home, the survey of women workers on fruit and vegetable farms in Italy revealed that 75% have had to cut back on the number of meals in the previous month, because their household could not afford sufficient food.
In Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Barcode’ supermarket scorecard, Aldi, Morrison’s and Lidl all scored 0% for their treatment of women, with Tesco at 5%, Sainsbury’s at 10% and ASDA 29%. It is a damning paradox that the people producing our food, even here in Europe, have to go without food themselves because they are simply not being paid enough. And that women – whose labour has been consistently and historically undervalued, underpaid or not even paid at all – are coming out worse, even in these already low standards.
Oxfam’s report concludes that there is no justifiable reason that the human rights of both men and women supplying food to our supermarkets cannot be respected. Yet instances of inequality and exploitation in food supply chains continue to grow. It is therefore the responsibility of all of us to vote with our buying power and only chose to shop at businesses which value women and pay them a fair living wage.
But progress must also be made at the legislative level. The UK Government must work harder to ensure that all businesses are compliant with the Modern Slavery Act and require major food companies to undertake human rights due diligence throughout their supply chains. More support must be provided for survivors of modern slavery, and the Government must set out plans for measuring levels of ‘decent work’ rather than just whether they are employed or not. Company law should also be reformed so that directors are required to act in the interests of all stakeholders – rather just their shareholders – and excessive accumulation and potential misuse of market power should be prevented alongside other unfair trading practices.
This is not to mention the vital work that needs to be undertaken on the ground in guaranteeing equal pay, good working conditions and economic empowerment for women and men.
To stamp out exploitation and mistreatment in food supply chains, the numerous drastic imbalances of power must be corrected, whether these are monetary, political or gender-based, between workers and suppliers, or between suppliers and supermarkets.
About Kerry McCarthy
Kerry McCarthy has been the Labour MP for Bristol East since 2005. She is a current member of both the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) and Environmental Audit (EAC) Select Committees. Previously Kerry has been the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment (2016-17), as well as a Shadow Minister for the Foreign Office (2011-15), Treasury (2010-11) and Work and Pensions (2010).