Tesco faces union anger over meat workers

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The Independent Online

The retail giant Tesco faces a protest from the trade union Unite over the treatment of migrant workers in its meat and poultry supply chain at its annual meeting in Glasgow today.

In a resolution that calls for corrective action, Unite alleges that certain practices at its meat suppliers do not meet Tesco's own ethical standards and some suppliers have a "two-tier workforce" where, primarily migrant, agency workers are paid less than permanent, predominately indigenous, employees, which it claims has created feelings of discrimination and racial tension. Unite says it is the first time that a British trade union has tabled a resolution at a UK company's AGM. The union said the requisition has been endorsed by the West Yorkshire Pension Fund, which holds 15,584,965 shares in Tesco, which made pre-tax profits of more than £3bn last year. The union will have representatives inside and outside the AGM and some will wear brightly coloured Every Worker Counts t-shirts.

A Tesco spokesman said: "Tesco already has a strong and proactive approach to managing corporate responsibility and ethical issues throughout our business and supply chain. Our own guidelines for suppliers go beyond the legal requirements and ensure that all workers are treated fairly and without discrimination." He added that despite requests from Tesco, those behind the resolution have provided no evidence that any of these guidelines have been breached by our suppliers. The spokesman said that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has already launched an industry investigation into employment practices in the meat and poultry supply chain and for this reason the grocer does not believe that bringing this resolution at one company's AGM is the best way to progress what is an industry-wide debate.

Ahead of the AGM, the charity War on Want also re-released recent report "Fashion Victims II" criticising the treatment of workers in factories in Bangladesh where they make clothes for Tesco, Asda and Primark. War on Want alleges that some garment workers are paid 7p an hour and work up to 80 hours a week at six factories in Bangladesh used by the three retailers, including some joint-production sites. It said in some of the factories, the average workers' pay is £20 a month. Yesterday, the charity said that since it published the report in December the retailers have not improved conditions in the factories, which it does not name amid concerns the workers it interviewed could lose their jobs. However, the three retailers vehemently disputed War on Wants' findings.

Tesco said: "The allegations are unsubstantiated and as War on Want have again decided not to engage with us on them we question whether their approach is the best way to tackle the complex issues surrounding the Bangladeshi garment industry. We take working conditions throughout our supply chain extremely seriously. We have no history of cut and running from suppliers while making clear we would work with any suppliers facing problems to help them improve worker conditions while ensuring that the interests of workers are protected. Therefore, claims workers are protected by withholding evidence are invalid and without producing evidence we can neither know whether there is any truth to them, nor go about putting right any possible concerns.

We insist on high working condition standards, going to great lengths to ensure our suppliers meet them."

Asda said: "George at ASDA has always been committed to doing the right thing for all our suppliers, customers and colleagues and although workers in the factories we use are not employed directly by ASDA, we recognise we have a shared responsibility with other retailers to protect and promote global worker welfare. We recently met with War on Want to discuss these issues as we take them very seriously. We would welcome the opportunity to meet again to try to formulate a structured plan to help resolve this."

Primark said: "It is totally wrong to suggest that Primark has made no progress in relation to Bangladesh. The company works tirelessly to ensure its many suppliers, including those in Bangladesh, conform to the highest standards of behaviour. Primark works very hard to continually improve ethical standards and working conditions among suppliers."