Low pay and harsh working conditions are common on farms and plantations that supply global supermarkets including Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, according to new research by Oxfam.
Interviews with 510 workers on 50 tea plantations in Assam in India revealed that half of those questioned receive ration cards meant for people below the poverty line, because their pay is too low.
Although Indian tea estates are legally obliged to provide decent housing and working conditions, Oxfam found that toilets were dilapidated or non-existent and most workers do not have access to safe drinking water, meaning that cholera and typhoid are common.
Meanwhile, women regularly clock up 13 hours of “back-breaking” work a day, the organisation said.
On grape, melon and mango farms in north-east Brazil, workers reported developing allergies and serious skin diseases as a result of using pesticides and other chemicals without proper protection. Women with children said they had to rely on relatives or government support to feed their families outside the harvest season.
“Despite some pockets of good practice, supermarkets’ relentless pursuit of profits continues to fuel poverty and human rights abuses in their supply chains,” said Rachel Wilshaw, ethical trade manager at Oxfam.
“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.”
One small change to pricing would make a big difference to workers, Oxfam found. Of the 79p paid by shoppers for a 100g pack of black Assam tea in the UK, 49p goes to supermarkets and tea brands, 27p to other firms such as packaging providers, while tea pickers collectively receive 3p. If workers on tea estates in Assam received just 5p more of the retail price, they could be paid a living wage of 330 rupees (£3.80) per day.
Aldi, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco confirmed to Oxfam that they source their own-brand tea from companies whose suppliers include the estates visited in Assam.
As for the fruit farms in Brazil, Lidl and Sainsbury’s confirmed they source produce from the farms, either directly or through importers, while Tesco and Morrisons said they previously did so.
When contacted by Oxfam, Asda owner Walmart declined to say whether it has links to the tea estates or the fruit farms.
Oxfam also published the results of a broader survey that, it said, adds to “the growing evidence that poor wages and abuse are rife across the food sector”.
According to the survey of more than 500 farm workers in the Philippines, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Peru and the US, three-quarters said they are not paid enough to cover basic needs such as food and housing. More than a third said they are not able to take a toilet break or have a drink of water when they needed it.
The Independent asked Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco for a comment on the findings.
A spokesperson for Aldi said: “We continue to work hard to ensure every person working in our supply chain is treated fairly and has their human rights respected. We share the values behind Oxfam’s campaign and are in regular dialogue with them.”
Sainsbury’s declined to comment, pointing instead to a statement issued by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) on behalf of its members.
“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,” said Peter Andrews, head of sustainability at the BRC.
A Tesco spokesperson said: “We are a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership, committed to improving the lives of tea workers and ensuring minimum working conditions. But we know there is always more to do and we are working collaboratively with NGOs, trade unions and others to improve wages in the key produce, tea and clothing sectors and ensure working conditions are fair.”
According to Oxfam, Tesco is doing most to protect human rights in its supply chain, although all six supermarkets still have a long way to go.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies