Worker pleads with Tesco to honour the fruits of her labour

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The Independent Online

She is a modest 38-year-old single mother from South Africa who spends the fruit-growing season packing apples, pears and peaches into boxes to export to the UK. But yesterday in London, Gertruida Baartman became a spokesperson for underpaid workers throughout the developing world.

Ms Baartman took on the might of the UK retailing world when she highlighted the plight of farm workers at Tesco's annual shareholders' meeting in London.

In front of more than 500 onlookers the fruit packer, who is paid 46 rand (£3.49) per day, made an impassioned plea to one of the best-paid executives in the City, Tesco's chief executive Sir Terry Leahy. Her wages just scrape the legal minimum set by the South African government earlier this year, but are less than a man would earn for the same work.

Ms Baartman confessed she was risking her job by speaking out. She works on a farm in the western Cape that supplies Tesco with fruit during the country's four-month growing season. "I don't get paid enough to feed my children and I have to work with pesticides with my bare hands. I don't get the same wages as other men even if I do the same work. I am here today to ask Tesco what it is going to do about my problem," she said.

The issue of poorly paid female fruit-pickers was brought to the supermarket giant's attention in a report last year by ActionAid, the campaign group that persuaded Ms Baartman to speak out and funded her trip. ActionAid bought one share in Tesco in her name, giving her the right to speak up at the retailer's annual meeting. The share cost about the same as she earns for her nine-hour shifts.

She said: "I know Tesco has been told before about our problem and they always say it isn't true but I'm standing here as a woman who is still living with this problem. So no one can tell me this is not true."

After the meeting Ms Baartman, who arrived in London on Wednesday and leaves today, visited a Tesco store in Kennington and said she was "shocked" at the price charged for the fruits of her labour. Explaining her reasoning for making the journey to the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster, she said: "It was a difficult decision for me to make but I am thinking about the other farm workers out there and the people who are struggling to stay alive. It is my full hope that it will help to change my life."

Ms Baartman differs from many fruit-pickers because she does not live in the inadequate housing provided by the farmers. Instead, she remains in her parents' home, which she shares with her three children, her disabled brother and her sister's two children. For the eight months of the year when there is no farm work, the family lives off money Ms Baartman can make begging or government handouts for her 32-year-old brother's disability and her parents' pension.

David Reid, Tesco's chairman, said the supermarket's ethical trading team had visited South Africa but had found no proof to back up the allegations made because both ActionAid and Women on Farms, a South African pressure group, will not name and shame the farms concerned. He promised to "personally guarantee" to protect Ms Baartman from any backlash from her employer if it managed to "expose any bad practice".