Ending Exploitation in Supermarket Supply Chains

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:09 pm on 18th October 2018.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 1:09 pm, 18th October 2018

I thank Kerry McCarthy for securing this important debate, and I am happy to have been called to speak in it.

It is time that we shone a light on the inequality and suffering that exists in the global supermarket chain, which is, as we have repeatedly heard today, nothing short of slavery. Of course, the real issue is that supermarkets have become hugely powerful, as Mr Hayes eloquently set out. Workers and small-scale suppliers and farmers across the globe, but perhaps particularly in developing countries where suppliers and workers are much more vulnerable to discriminatory policies, can face great suffering and unfairness due to this power imbalance. As the hon. Members for Bristol East, for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) and for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) reminded us, such exploitation is often closer to home as well, and is perhaps epitomised in our minds by the Morecambe bay tragedy involving the cockle-pickers.

We have heard much today—it was mentioned by my hon. Friend Deidre Brock—about Oxfam’s important “Ripe for Change” report, which presents new and alarming evidence of the suffering faced by women and men behind the supermarket barcodes. While it is positive that UK supermarkets help to create jobs in developing countries, that cannot blind us to the outrage of human and labour rights abuses in the supply chains of the foods we eat. My hon. Friend reminded us of that in powerful terms.

Oxfam reminds us of forced labour aboard fishing vessels in south-east Asia, poverty wages on Indian tea plantations, and the hunger faced by workers on South African grape farms, as was well set out by the hon. Member for Bristol East. We see gross global inequality and escalating climate change, which must be increasingly unsustainable.

The fact is that in this global market, supermarkets choose their products from all over the world, moving between countries and suppliers as the seasons change, with all sorts of fruit and vegetables being sold at all times of the year. But cheap food and all-year-round choice come at a price, and that price is that the big retailers exert huge and intense pressure on suppliers to cut costs while at the same time demanding the highest quality.

Prices paid to suppliers continue to be squeezed, as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings set out, while there is inadequate support for small-scale farmers and workers from Governments in producer countries, and those factors have increased the risk of human and labour rights violations. This manifests itself in such practices as exploitative child labour and unpaid female labour, and if we could see them for ourselves every day as we bought our produce, it would make us feel very uncomfortable. As the hon. Member for Ipswich pointed out, supermarkets must know how their suppliers operate, and if they do not know, they should.

We all want our grocery bills to be as low as possible, but how many consumers are truly aware of the real cost of cheap groceries? All too often, the cost is that those who produce the food on our supermarket shelves are themselves trapped in poverty and face brutal working conditions, with many going hungry. Oxfam has indicated that, sadly, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda, Lidl and Aldi are increasingly squeezing the prices they pay suppliers, with less and less of the price we pay at the till reaching the small-scale farmers and workers who actually produce the food we eat.

Alarmingly, of the supply chains Oxfam looked at, none enabled people to earn enough for even a basic standard of living, and in some cases, including the production of Indian tea and Kenyan green beans, it was less than half of what they needed to get by, as the hon. Member for Bristol East reminded us. Women face routine discrimination, often providing most of the labour for the lowest wages. More than nine out of 10 of the grape workers in South Africa and seafood processors in Thailand surveyed—most of whom were women—said they had not had enough to eat in the previous month, and several Members, including the hon. Member for Bristol East and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, have pointed that out. We have heard from a number of Members about how the cheap food we buy in supermarkets comes at the cost of squeezing prices paid to suppliers, which then creates huge suffering for the women and men who supply this food, trapping them in poverty.