Ending Exploitation in Supermarket Supply Chains

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:21 pm on 18th October 2018.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 12:21 pm, 18th October 2018

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I chaired a joint event last night between the APPG on human trafficking and modern slavery and the APPG on agriculture and food for development. One point made powerfully was that while we want the Government and the supermarkets to act—I will come to that in a moment—we must also look at procurement. The Government could be incredibly powerful if their procurement policies made it clear that they would not source from companies that could not give absolute assurance that there was not slavery in their supply chain.

I mentioned the Thai fishing sector. The Foreign Office should be doing more to support human rights defenders such as Andy Hall, whom I have been in contact with for many years. He has exposed some of the worst practices in food producing there, starting with the pineapple sector, and I think he is now writing about the chicken sector. He has been threatened, harassed and pursued through the courts as a result, and I do not think the Foreign Office is doing enough to support him.

The examples that I have given are clearly abhorrent and illegal, but it is also unacceptable that small-scale farmers and workers producing Indian tea and Kenyan green beans—common items in our supermarkets—are earning less than half of what is needed to ensure a basic but decent standard of living. When women working on grape farms in South Africa were surveyed, 90% reported not having enough to eat in the previous month. These are things that we take for granted; a grape is, to an extent, a luxury item, yet the women producing them cannot feed themselves or their families. If buyers were prepared to pay just three cents more per melon to a producer in Honduras and less than two cents on a banana in Guatemala, that would give those workers a living wage.

A big part of the problem is the supermarket model itself. It provides us with unparalleled choice. We can buy products from all over the world, all year round, at low prices and at our convenience. Retailers are increasingly operating in challenging circumstances, under threat from the discounters and online competition, and this is leading to over-consolidation. Tesco and Carrefour have teamed up to buy products. The planned merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda would see them control more than 30% of the UK groceries retail market. They have promised that, if the merger goes ahead, they will cut shelf prices on key items by 10%, which will cause yet more downward pressure on prices for suppliers. Supermarkets now keep an increasing amount of the money their customers spend—as much as 50% in some cases.