Global retailers, including British supermarkets are, systematically inflicting poor working conditions on millions of women workers to conduct price wars and feed ever-rising consumer expectations of cheap produce, Oxfam said yesterday.
A study of employment conditions in 12 countries which supply items from jeans to gerberas to international brands such as Walmart and Tesco found that the largely female workforce in many suppliers is working longer hours for low wages in unhealthy conditions and failing to reap any benefit from globalisation.
Women in developing countries are estimated to occupy between 60 and 90 per cent of the jobs in the labour-intensive stages of the clothing industry and the production of fresh fruit and vegetables destined for supermarket shelves in Europe and America.
Oxfam claims the buying policies of the new breed of global retailers as they use competition between suppliers as far apart as Thailand and Kenya to demand lower prices and increased efficiencies have resulted in imposing worsening labour conditions on those at the bottom of the supply chain.
Kate Raworth, the report's author, said: "The majority of workers performing these tasks - picking fruit, sewing garments, cutting flowers - are women. But rather than their work providing the income to lift their families out of poverty, these workers are commonly hired on short contracts or, with no contract at all, they have no sick leave and their insecurity and vulnerability is reinforced. Exploiting the circumstances of vulnerable people, whether intentionally or not, is at the heart of many employment strategies in global supply chains."
The campaign was launched yesterday by Minnie Driver, the Oscar-nominated British actress, in Cambodia, where workers are paid little more than £35 a month to make garments for major sports brands.
Oxfam said its research in countries such as South Africa, Bangladesh, Colombia, Honduras and Thailand found that women workers were expected to juggle the traditional responsibilities of housekeeping and child rearing as well as bringing in an extra income.
As a result they were exploited by employers who expect them to perform "low skill" jobs at maximum efficiency. While many were receiving the minimum wage from suppliers, the income was still not enough to cover basic needs, Oxfam claims.
In Bangladesh, 98 per cent of the workers approached by Oxfam were receiving the legal minimum. But its level was set in 1994 and the price of staple foodstuffs has doubled since.
In Morocco, staff in garment factories supplying Spain's El Cortes department store chain were expected to work up to 16-hours a day to meet orders placed with seven days' notice but are paid barely half of the overtime they accumulate.
The market is dominated by large companies which act as "gatekeepers" between developing countries and lucrative western markets, according to the report.
Retailers now hold "internet auctions" for suppliers to submit the lowest bids for contracts and place "same-day" orders for fresh produce to be packaged and shipped within 24 hours, placing extra burdens on female pickers and packing workers.
Extra costs, such as the specific packaging ordered by most UK supermarkets for fruit, are also passed on to farmers whose margins in turn are so tight that they have to pass on the financial burden to their workforce, it is claimed.
In South Africa, the export price for apples has fallen 33 per cent since 1994. In Florida the real price paid for tomatoes, picked by women immigrant labourers, has dropped by a quarter since 1992 while the price paid in supermarkets by consumers in America has risen by 43 per cent.
The study highlights Tesco, Britain's biggest and most profitable supermarket, which also sells in 10 other countries, as being among retailers which allegedly pass on costs without paying more for the end product.