Ending Exploitation in Supermarket Supply Chains

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:04 pm on 18th October 2018.

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Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales) 1:04 pm, 18th October 2018

I commend Kerry McCarthy for tabling this important motion, but is it not sad that, in these supposedly enlightened times, we are still having to discuss the brutal practices of slavery? Forced labour, domestic servitude, people-trafficking—there is nothing modem about this. It is an age-old story of individuals being dehumanised and exploited by fellow human beings.

Workers have hard-fought rights in the United Kingdom, but it is easy for a blind eye to be turned to something nasty that is happening to people further down the line: those whose labour helped to put those shiny products on our supermarket shelves. When profit alone is king, there are always unscrupulous businesses that will callously treat people as commodities. Unless there is credible action to stop it, there will always be brands that will do the shady deals and say, “Nothing to see here,” or, “Nothing to do with me.” We need to shine a light on forced labour and the exploitation of workforces, and hold the companies at the top of the line responsible, too. In that way, we can drive these sickening practices from the supply chain.

I am not just talking about the appalling cases of people trafficked into slavery, such as those we have heard about involving Burmese and Cambodian crews on Thai fishing boats. Millions of workers are forced to labour for almost nothing in appalling conditions that violate their human rights. Oxfam’s excellent research reveals the shocking poverty and human rights abuses that are behind many common products on our supermarket shelves. For example, there are South African women farmers who pick grapes for our wine but cannot even feed themselves and their families. The highest-paid supermarket chief executive will earn more in less than five days than those women do in their entire lifetimes—let that sink in. Where women are the main labourers, the risk of exploitation is even worse.

The Oxfam researchers found that less than 6% of the consumer price was reaching small-scale farmers and growers, with supermarkets capturing over half the value of the products, which is more than in the Netherlands, Germany and the United States. Profits paid in dividends had dramatically risen in the UK since the 1970s. Business models are ever more strongly focused on increasing returns for shareholders instead of looking after the interests of all stakeholders.

The Modern Slavery Act was a much-needed, welcome piece of legislation. I commend the Government for the action that they have taken so far, and the Prime Minister for her own commitment on this issue. Those, I think, are efforts that we can all support.

Some supermarkets have taken steps to identify and deal with issues in their supply chains. I note, for example, the efforts of Marks & Spencer to improve transparency with an interactive supply chain map, including information on trade union membership recognition from its primary suppliers. There are also good news stories, such as the growing success of the Fairtrade market in the UK. More agreements are being reached with the big supermarkets to expand their Fairtrade products, which is fantastic news, but that, unfortunately, makes the news that we have just heard about the decision of Sainsbury’s to pull out of its commitment to Fairtrade even more disappointing.