Human-rights abuses commonplace in farms linked to major European supermarkets, Oxfam finds

Published: 9th October 2019

Poverty pay, harsh working conditions, gender discrimination and human rights abuses are commonplace on the farms and plantations that supply tea, fruit and vegetables to supermarkets such as Aldi, Lidl and Tesco, reveals new research published by Oxfam today. The organisation calls on the European Commission and the European Parliament to urgently table a new law requiring companies to respect human rights throughout their global supply chains.

Oxfam’s research shows that many of the people producing the food we eat in Europe are victims of systematic economic exploitation and denial of their most basic rights. The research highlights how the retailers’ relentless drive to cut costs and maximise profits is fuelling poverty and abuse in their supply chains. Women are especially affected as they are often in the lowest paid and most labour-intensive jobs, and regularly face gender-based discrimination and sexual abuse in the workplace.

  • Interviews with hundreds of workers on tea estates in Assam, India, revealed that cholera and typhoid are common because workers lack access to toilets and safe drinking water. Half the workers questioned receive ‘Below Poverty Line’ ration cards from the government because wages are so low – despite the fact many women tea pickers regularly clock up 13 hours of backbreaking work a day. Aldi North, Edeka, Lidl and Rewe source tea from the Assam region. Retailers such as Aldi South, Costco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco source tea from companies whose suppliers include the estates visited by researchers.
  • In North-East Brazil, researchers found evidence of widespread poverty among harvest workers on grape, melon and mango farms that supply Lidl and Sainsbury’s and, until recently, Tesco. Workers reported developing allergies and serious skin diseases as a result of working with pesticides and other chemicals without adequate protection. Aldi North and Edeka have neither denied nor confirmed links.
  • A new survey, also released today, of workers on farms and plantations in countries including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, the Philippines and the US found that three quarters of workers questioned said that they were not paid enough to cover basic needs such as food and housing. Over a third said they were not protected from injury or harm at work and were not able to take a toilet break or to drink water when they needed it. The survey results add to a growing body of evidence that poor wages and abuse is rife across the food sector.

To protect the women and men who are producing the food we eat, the EU should introduce new legislation that requires companies to respect the human rights of people working in their global supply chains.

Oxfam’s EU Economic Justice Policy Lead, Marc-Olivier Herman, said:

“Human suffering should never be an ingredient of the food we buy. When companies in Europe abuse their vast purchasing power, farmers and workers in Europe and beyond are denied their rights.

“The EU must prove it is a champion of human rights and make it a priority to table EU legislation that requires companies and investors to uphold human rights throughout their global supply chains.”

Oxfam is calling on the newly elected European Parliament and the incoming European Commission to introduce mandatory human rights due diligence, ensuring:

  • That companies are required to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for negative impacts of their business on the rights of people in their supply chain.
  • That this requirement applies throughout a companies’ global supply chain.
  • That victims of exploitation and abuse have the right and opportunity to seek redress when companies have failed their duty to exercise due diligence.

Supermarkets are also under increasing pressure from shoppers and investors to act. 50 investors with assets worth approximately $3.1 trillion released a statement today calling on supermarkets to disclose from where they source their products and to tackle human rights abuse in their supply chains.

Notes to editors

  • Spokespeople available for comments and interviews in Brussels, India and Brazil.
  • The following resources are available:
  • With its Behind the Barcodes campaign, Oxfam urges governments and supermarkets directly to crack down on human rights abuses, inhumane working conditions, poverty wages and discrimination against women. Oxfam has rated and ranked 16 retailers on how well they are tackling poverty and abuse in their supply chain. The latest assessment, published in July 2019, shows that while some retailers are starting to make changes, progress is patchy and slow, and no company is doing anywhere near enough to protect the rights of the people who produce our food.
  • Oxfam’s research covers many of the biggest supermarkets globally. Walmart and Costco are US supermarkets; Aldi North, Aldi South, Edeka, Rewe, Lidl, are German; Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco are British, and PLUS is Dutch. Many of these retailers operate internationally.
  • 88 non-governmental organisations and trade unions, including Oxfam, are demanding EU legislation on human rights and environmental due diligence to put an end to corporate impunity.

Contact information

Florian Oel | Brussels | | office +32 2 234 11 15 | mobile +32 473 56 22 60

For updates, please follow @Oxfam and @OxfamEU.