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Tesco in row over foreign workers
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Women fruit pickers in South Africa endure 'pitiful conditions', says report

10th April 2005 - Mark Townsend, The Guardian (UK)

Britain's biggest supermarket, Tesco, will face searching questions this week over its treatment of foreign employees following allegations that thousands of women workers suffered 'appalling' conditions.

As the chain prepares to announce record profits of more than £2 billion on Tuesday, equivalent to more than £250,000 an hour, campaigners are demanding that the massive buying power of major supermarkets is brought under control.

An investigation by ActionAid found that women workers in South Africa who grow fruit sold in Tesco endured poor wages and pitiful conditions.

The findings coincide with a United Nations summit to be held this week during which new regulations for multinational business will be discussed. Critics want the British government to back proposals which could see international human rights laws applied to the world's biggest companies.

It comes amid growing concern that supermarkets have become too powerful as the world food industry becomes increasingly concentrated in a few hands. The profits of Wal-Mart, which owns supermarket chain Asda, are, for example, bigger than the economies of Mozambique and Ghana combined.

'We are concerned that the growth of supermarkets in developing countries is really undermining the fight against poverty,' said Dominic Eagleton, policy researcher for ActionAid. 'Increasing their market power has managed to drain the wealth from farming communities and marginalised small-scale producers.'

Tesco, Britain's biggest buyer of South African fruit, is signed up to the industry's ethical trading initiative which sets out minimum labour standards. However, researchers for charity ActionAid uncovered 'unacceptable conditions' among temporary labourers interviewed on Tesco accredited farms. The report, released tomorrow, is expected to reveal how workers complained of receiving pay equivalent to below South Africa's minimum wage.

One casual labourer on a pear farm supplying Tesco complained of wages so low that they could not afford school uniforms for their children. Others described how pesticides were sprayed at the same time as women worked in orchards and that they were not given protective clothing. One told how they picked pears while trees were still 'wet' from pesticides.

Claims of sexism also surface in the findings, with complaints suggesting that men received perks such as uniforms and boots that women did not. Casual women labourers did not even receive similar work benefits. Dismal housing for workers is also highlighted, with some describing how they were forced to live in shacks with cardboard walls.

The latest evidence comes amid wider concerns of the growth of international food chains in developing countries. A recent report, again by ActionAid, claimed that international food companies were exacerbating global poverty by buying up seed firms while forcing down prices for staple goods including tea, coffee, milk, bananas and wheat.

Eagleton said: 'Companies can use their market power to drive down prices and get better terms from suppliers.' He added that previous investigations had found some suppliers were often afraid to speak out for fear of being struck off by supermarkets.

Increased scrutiny on the buying power of supermarkets is unlikely to stop Tesco from expanding its presence abroad. While it took the Hertfordshire-based supermarket 75 years to break the £1bn full-year profit barrier, it has has taken only five to surpass the £2bn barrier.

A Tesco spokesman yesterday said it would urgently investigate the ActionAid allegations once it had received details of the inquiry. He said the supermarket's trade with developing countries has brought 'enormous' social and economic benefits to thousands of workers.

'We work hard to ensure that every worker producing for Tesco is paid fairly and treated decently and we audit suppliers regularly to ensure that this happens,' he added.

In addition to the growing monopoly of supermarkets, experts add that just 30 companies now account for a third of the world's processed food.

Further Information: The fruits of poverty - by George Monbiot

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