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UK supermarket squeeze on suppliers fuels poverty and abuse, campaigners say

By Reuters | June 21st 2018

Millions of farmers and factory workers worldwide who produce food for Britain’s leading supermarkets are exploited and struggle to feed their families as their share of the price consumers pay dwindles, campaigners said on Thursday.

Across 12 supermarket supply chains - including avocados from Peru, tea from India and green beans from Kenya - Oxfam research found that none of the workers or farmers earned enough on average to maintain a decent standard of living.

“It is shocking that so many of the farmers and workers producing food for our supermarket shelves are going hungry themselves,” Matthew Spencer, Oxfam’s director of policy in Britain, said in a statement.

“Our biggest supermarkets are squeezing the price they pay their suppliers, resulting in huge, hidden suffering amongst the women and men who supply our food and trapping them in poverty.”

From everyday groceries such as bananas, coffee and rice to clothes produced for high-street shops, major brands face rising consumer pressure to improve safety and conditions along their supply chains, render them slavery-free, and ensure fair wages.

Supermarkets such as Aldi, Asda and Tesco are increasingly squeezing the amount they pay their suppliers, fuelling poverty and workplace abuses, according to a report by Oxfam.

While the British supermarkets’ share of what consumers pay rose to nearly 53 percent in 2015 from 41 percent in 1996, the percentage pocketed by workers in their supply chains fell by a quarter to 5.7 percent over the same period, the charity said.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) - a trade association representing Britain’s major supermarkets - said that improving equality was a key priority for its more than 90 retail members.

“Our members have made a number of commitments to improve the livelihoods of people working in our supply chains and to increase the transparency of those efforts,” a spokeswoman for the BRC told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

Workers interviewed by Oxfam - from grape pickers in South Africa to seafood workers in Thailand and Indonesia - said they were struggling to feed their families and had endured abuse, forced pregnancy tests, dangerous workplaces and poverty wages.

“Low wages, poor conditions and discrimination against women are sadly all too common ... for many of those who toil to produce our food,” Peter McAllister, executive director of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), said in a statement.

"The danger is that unless action is taken, millions of workers and farmers will be condemned to in-work poverty, further fuelling unrest and conflict," added the head of the ETI - a global alliance of trade unions, businesses and charities. 

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