Poverty pay and abuse of workers commonplace on farms linked to major supermarkets

Published: 9th October 2019

Poverty pay, harsh working conditions, and gender discrimination are commonplace on the farms and plantations that supply tea, fruit and vegetables to supermarkets such as Lidl, PLUS, and Whole Foods reveals new research published by Oxfam today.

The research, including in-depth interviews with workers in the United States, India and Brazil, highlights how the retailers’ relentless drive to cut costs and maximise profits, is fuelling poverty and abuse in their supply chains.

  • Interviews with workers on 50 tea estates in Assam, India reveal 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. Women workers, who are often in the lowest paid most labour intensive jobs, regularly clock up 13 hours of back breaking work a day. Aldi North, Edeka, Lidl, Rewe and Whole Foods 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. Walmart and Kroger have neither denied nor confirmed links with the estates.
  • In North East Brazil, researchers found evidence of poverty among harvest workers on grape, melon and mango farms.  Women with children, who are unable to travel long distances for work elsewhere, said they were forced to rely on relatives or government support to feed their families outside the harvest season. Workers also reported developing allergies and serious skin diseases as a result of working with pesticides and other chemicals without adequate protection. The farms supply Lidl, Sainsbury's, and Whole Foods and, until recently, Morrisons, PLUS and Tesco. Walmart and Kroger have neither denied nor confirmed links.
  • In North Carolina in the United States, workers on sweet potato farms that supply Whole Foods reported working up to 14 hours a day in oppressive heat with few rest breaks and often with very limited access to toilets. Many say they are paid low wages and are too scared to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.
  • A new survey, also released today, of workers on farms and plantations in countries including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, the Philippines, and the US adds to a growing body of evidence that poor wages and abuse is rife across the food sector. 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 have a drink of water when they needed it.

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International said:

Supermarkets are snapping up the lion’s share of the price we pay at the till - while workers who toil for hours to grow and harvest tea, fruit and vegetables are paid so little they can’t even feed their own families.” 

New analysis by Oxfam reveals that supermarkets are taking an ever-increasing share of the price paid by shoppers – much of which is channelled to already wealthy shareholders and owners.  In the United States, supermarkets and tea brands capture almost 94 percent of the price of a pack of black tea with less than 1 percent accruing to workers on tea estates. In the UK, supermarket and tea brands receive 49p, and workers collectively receive just three pence, from a pack of black tea selling for 74p and in Germany, supermarkets and tea brands retain €2.15 from a pack of tea that costs €2.48 - while just €0.03 goes to workers.

Supermarkets have increased the share of the price they take from a basket of twelve everyday items from an average of 43.5 percent in 1996-8 to 48.3 percent in 2015. The share going to workers fell from 8.8 percent to 6.5 percent over the same period.

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

“Supermarkets must open up about where they buy their products from and they must ensure that their buying practices are not fuelling poverty and abuse, that workers in their supply chains are paid a living wage and have safe and dignified working conditions; and that women workers are free from discrimination,” added Byanyima.  

Notes to editors

The following resources are available: 

Oxfam’s Behind the Price campaign rates and ranks 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.

Albertsons, Costco, Kroger, Walmart and Whole Foods are US supermarkets; Aldi North, Aldi South, Edeka, Lidl, Rewe, are German; Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco are British and Ahold Delhaize, Jumbo, and PLUS is Dutch. Many of these supermarkets operate internationally.

Contact information

Anna Ratcliff: anna.ratcliff@oxfam.org or +44 7796993288

For updates follow @Oxfam.