The issue

Supermarkets supply three-quarters of all the food consumed in the UK. This food is produced by workers from all over the world, many of whom are working in poor conditions, for poor wages and with little or no protection from exploitation. Questions are increasingly being asked about the fairness of trade between consumers and the workers along the food chain. The rights of these workers, like the rights of workers in the UK, have become an issue that concerns retailers, unions, consumers and shareholders of supermarket companies.

The global supply chain may have resulted in increased quantity and variety of food supplies in the richer countries of the world, but 800 million people in developing countries and 34 million in industrial countries still do not have enough food to eat, because they are too poor to buy it.

Currently 1.3 billion people work in agriculture-related jobs – a full half of the world's labour force. 450 million are waged agricultural workers.[1] Until recently these workers have been overlooked and remain invisible in sustainable development but new progress on the UN Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) initiative came out of the World Social Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. This established a mechanism through which to promote and implement SARD and a commitment to promote fairer employment in agriculture as a major means of poverty reduction for waged agricultural workers and wage-dependent small farmers. But the fact still remains that the globalised structure of agribusiness has increased the vulnerability of those working in the food industry and the irony is that those who feed the world are often least able to feed themselves.

This module is concerned with wages and working conditions for supermarket workers, other workers employed by supermarket companies (e.g. bakers, distribution depot staff) and farm and factory workers in the companies that supply food to supermarkets, both in the UK and overseas.

A fairer and greener food system

Everyone in the world wants and deserves enough food for themselves and their families at an affordable cost. This includes those who grow, produce, process and package, distribute and sell food throughout the world. All these workers in the food industry need to know that their rights at work are protected and that the work they do is safe and does not damage their health. This is a real issue with 170,000 people being killed each year in agriculture.

Labour standards are the framework to make this happen. They are fundamental human rights and freedoms which everyone should enjoy and the best framework for supermarkets to implement these standards are those provided by the ILO (International Labour Organisation). The ILO is a tri-partite, UN body and involves business, trade unions and governments in the drafting of conventions and recommendations which aim to ensure that international competition in production and trade take place on the basis of respect for universally acknowledged minimum labour standards. ILO standards, once ratified, create binding obligations on governments. Even in the absence of ratification, they serve as a standard of reference for national law and practice.

The fundamental standards or principles, known as the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, relate to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced or compulsory labour, the abolition of the worst forms of child labour and the elimination of discrimination. In addition, there are other standards that are important for addressing labour conditions. These include provisions on health and safety, maximum hours of work, wages, disciplinary practices and security of employment.

Codes of conduct are increasingly used as a way of shaping corporate policy on labour standards and as an attempt to take some responsibility for what happens throughout their complex supply chains. To make them effective, workers need to be familiar with the codes and have confidence that they will be respected if they are to benefit from the protection they provide. Effective monitoring and independent verification are critical.

Of course, in countries where national labour law operates effectively and trade unions are recognised and have collective bargaining rights, codes are an additional support. In countries without this, codes are often the only possibility for workers to secure these basic human rights.


The role, influence and impact of supermarkets on labour standards

In the UK, supermarkets are in a position to try and influence patterns of consumption, and hence, patterns of agricultural production. In addition, supermarket employees are a major element in the UK workforce, with the ten largest players employing around 700,000 workers. This compares to 300,000 in food manufacturing and 120,000 permanent farm employees, plus about 20,000 seasonal workers 'on the books' but with probably many more in the informal economy.

Examples of number of retail staff employed by major supermarkets

Tesco 171,737 (includes Section Managers)
Sainsbury's 110,000
Somerfield 39,000
Morrisons 33,000
Marks & Spencer 53,500 (includes Managers)
Source: IDS Reports  

Implementation of pay and benefit packages for UK retail staff by the multiples is complex, but an open process. Addressing labour standards issues for all their suppliers and sub-contractors is, however, more complex, and this is new territory — it is 20 years behind work already done on environmental standards.

But supermarkets do not need to reinvent the wheel to develop labour standards as part of their social and ethical responsibilities. By making this core business strategy, they are able to manage relationships with a variety of stakeholders throughout their entire supply chain.

As the British Retail Consortium (BRC) point out [2]

" ..large retailers, conscious of broader trends in the population as a whole, have long been developing policies and activities which reflect the requirements of their new customer base…some major UK retailers, such as the Co-op Group..are founded on, or have embraced in their mission, principles which explicitly prioritise societal or environmental concerns as part of their competitive strategy."

In developing indicators to benchmark labour standards we have taken an approach that is intended to look at a company's overall relationship to its workforce. The emphasis is on social partnership both with the supermarket's own workforce and with suppliers large and small.


[1] ICFTU at al – Plough to Plate - Approaches to food and agriculture: workers and trade unions in the agriculture and food system. International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC), International Union of Food and Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Association (IUF), February, 2000

[2] BRC Response to EC Green Paper on Corporate Social Responsibility


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