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 certainly think that. At the all-party group yesterday, we heard from someone from ASOS, the online clothes firm, who talked about all the measures it takes. It has really complex supply chains, sourcing products from all around the world—not just finished garments, but material, zips and buttons—yet it seems to be able to do it, so I do not see why supermarkets cannot. They should be doing it on food safety and on other issues as well, so they ought to be doing it on modern slavery.

The Agriculture Bill will require more data from the agri-food sector on supply chain fairness. That will get some information out there that can be used, like the Oxfam scorecard, to put pressure on the supermarkets to change their practices. However, there is nothing in the Bill about such data being used for a legally enforced purpose. Having been a member of the Public Bill Committee, I hope we can change that. I raised this issue this morning at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions and I got a response from the Farming Minister about the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, but I am slightly concerned that he did not seem to link it in with discussions about modern slavery. I would hope that as a result of this debate he and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Victoria Atkins, can have a conversation. The International Labour Organisation has said that the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector is the fourth largest sector for the incidence of slavery, so it certainly needs to be on DEFRA’s radar.

I also asked the Farming Minister in Select Committee whether he would support the EU’s unfair trading practices directive, covering the whole of the supply chain, which will extend to producers selling into the EU from overseas. Naturally, the Minister told me that the Government would prefer to deal with this on a national basis, but we do need a firm commitment that the Government will follow the EU’s lead and establish themselves as a good and responsible customer so that we do not end up losing the preference of suppliers post Brexit—why would they sell to us when they do not get the same protection they would get from selling elsewhere? Another step the Government can take is to support the adoption of a binding UN treaty on business and human rights that holds companies legally accountable for human rights violations along their supply chain.

There is another reason for holding this debate now. There are too many in this place who enthusiastically extol the opportunities of getting our hands on even cheaper food in the post-Brexit world, but that would come at a terrible price: a race to the bottom on food standards, food safety, animal welfare and environmental protections, and the continued exploitation of workers around the globe. The key message I want to get across today is that cheap food comes at a cost, and the cost is often met by the workers. Cheap food is not the solution to food insecurity. Food bank use is driven by low pay and insecure work, benefit freezes, sanctions and delays, and spiralling housing costs. Something has gone very wrong when a local advice centre tells me it has been helping a client who could not afford to eat, but she could not get to the food bank because it was only open when she was at work—at Tesco.

We also need to be cautious, as I mentioned at DEFRA questions this morning, about Government plans to bring in seasonal migrant workers to fill labour shortfalls after Brexit. Focus on Labour Exploitation—FLEX—has warned that temporary migration programmes that tie workers to a single employer would mean workers are unable to defend themselves if they are paid less than promised or if they are expected to work longer hours and in worse conditions than initially agreed.

In conclusion, I represent a city, Bristol, that was built on the back of the slave trade, the hideous and now unimaginable trade in Africans and in slave-produced commodities such as sugar, chocolate, coffee, cotton and tobacco. Bristol is now one of the leading fair trade cities in the world and at the forefront of efforts to stamp out modern slavery. Our city is home to anti-slavery organisations such as Unseen and TISCreport that are, like Mayor Marvin Rees, committed to stamping out this horrendous crime, making the commitment to be the world’s first transparent city at a time when most did not even know what that meant. Slavery is not just a terrible episode in history. Some 13 million people were captured and sold as slaves from the 15th century to the 19th century while slavery was legal, but the “Global Slavery Index” estimates that more than 40 million people live as slaves today.

When the current Prime Minister came to office, she vowed to personally work to eradicate this “barbaric evil” and

“great human rights issue of our time”.

But as with many promises, I fear that the Government’s ambition may be slipping. I hope the Minister can provide some reassurance today that that is not the case.