Channel 4 Dispatches: Supermarkets – only half the story

by Fiona Gooch, Traidcraft

The need for legislative action on supply chains is paramount – voluntary action is insufficient to resist competitive pressures to deliver short-term profit

This week, Channel 4 Dispatches investigated supermarket supply chains and revealed the working lives of those at the very bottom: the people who pick, pack and manufacture our food. Traidcraft were pleased to be given the opportunity to voice our concerns and highlight the global issues resulting from intense market pressures.

Sadly, the over-arching message on Monday’s show reveals only half the story. Just like the UK Parliament’s recent Modern Slavery Bill, Dispatches focused on UK-centric stories. Let me take moment to elaborate on this story some of the key concerns of Traidcraft, CORE and its partners.

The positive impacts for workers and farmers of participating in international supply chains is that they can develop their skills and earn an income. In turn, they can contribute to their family’s household income to pay for shelter, food, water, health and education-related costs; and, with luck, travel, other household needs, and possibly save some for future emergencies.

However, too often workers’ lives, health and limbs are put at risk. They are forced to work long hours often resulting in healthcare issues and incurring heavy childcare costs. To top it off, they are typically paid a pittance which means that they remain permanently in debt. Small-scale farmers receive unpredictable and insufficient incomes which has consequences for their households.

It is no secret to say that the enormous pressures supermarkets, including those in the UK, put on their suppliers are passed along to those people least able to resist. Some supermarket purchasing practices are abusive, passing excessive risks and unexpected costs onto suppliers who, in-turn, pass risks onto their smaller suppliers, and their workforce.

In short: irresponsible purchasing practices (late payments, and last-minute changes to prices and orders) force manufacturers and suppliers to resort to whatever means necessary to keep their costs down. Abusive purchasing practices are ultimately felt by human beings around the world.

A change in the culture and practice of purchasing is needed. In the field of supply chains CORE members including Traidcraft and War on Want have campaigned for the establishment of the UK’s Grocery Code Adjudicator, the Gangmaster Licensing Authority and the Rana Plaza Accord.

CORE is currently working with a group of anti-slavery organisations to press for a measure in the Modern Day Slavery Bill to require companies to report on the steps they are taking to identify and address modern slavery in their supply chains. This is a start towards much-needed measures to deal with the drivers for cheap and easily exploitable labour.

It’s hypocritical for companies to hide behind the fluffy PR exercise of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ while at the same time pursuing the very practices which undermine labour rights. Changes to companies’ purchasing practices have much greater potential to make a difference. To help improve UK companies’ impact when they purchase products from developing countries, CORE’s partner Traidcraft developed a set of Responsible Purchasing Guides in collaboration with organisations in the sector.

As a result of following up on this guidance, it has become clear that some companies are not able to voluntarily improve their purchasing practices due to sectoral dynamics. Yet these practices must improve to enable workers and farmers to experience better lives as a result of working in international supply chains.