UK supermarkets making progress to tackle human suffering in global supply chains

Oxfam has published its fourth Behind the Barcodes scorecard showing a race to the top amongst supermarkets to improve on human rights for workers in their global supply chains.

From new gender policies to commitments on living wages, Behind the Barcodes was launched in 2018 to help change the lives of the millions of people producing food for supermarkets who are trapped in poverty and working in brutal conditions.

The campaign focuses on six of the UK’s biggest supermarkets – Asda, Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – highlighting the human suffering behind supermarket food and calling on the retailers to use their leverage to ensure workers’ rights are respected.

Oxfam assessed the supermarkets’ publicly disclosed policies and practices in four key areas: transparency – including with consumers about where food comes from, conditions for workers, conditions for small-scale farmers and tackling discrimination against women.

Tesco tops the scorecard for the fourth year running, while Lidl jumps into second place. Aldi, at the bottom of the last scorecard, is now third, followed by Sainsbury’s, then Morrisons and Asda at the bottom demonstrating that it urgently needs to prioritise putting a human rights strategy in place to catch up.

Radhika Sarin, Oxfam’s Private Sector Senior Adviser said: “The pressure of the campaign, with Oxfam supporters and supermarket customers calling for change has created a race to the top for the retailers to improve their human rights rating. Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have all improved their scores since 2018.

“It is encouraging that supermarkets understand they have a responsibility to tackle human rights abuses in their supply chains. However, the drive to cuts costs and negotiate the lowest possible prices with suppliers remains the biggest barrier to better pay and conditions.

“We need supermarkets to switch to responsible buying practices and governments to strengthen legislation that protects workers, including on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence.

“Oxfam will continue to challenge the barriers to a decent life for the millions who produce our food.”

Initial laggards and focus of the campaign in previous years, Aldi and Lidl, have taken significant steps to improve their approach to managing human rights by publishing new policies and commitments. Both companies have published several human rights impact assessments (HRIAs), which focus on supply chains rife with risk, such as avocados from Peru and tea from Kenya, to understand, identify and address human rights impacts on people.

In 2018, no supermarket published information about its food suppliers but now Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco publish all their direct suppliers, reflecting a radical shift in supply chain transparency. Lidl has gone further with its transparency for some products and now publishes its full chain for bananas, tea, strawberries and seafood.

At the start of the campaign almost all supermarkets were also neglecting the specific needs and challenges faced by women, such as gender-based violence at work, or the burden of unpaid care and domestic work. Today, the scorecard shows welcome signs that this is changing, with increasing awareness of the barriers to fair and equal treatment for women workers and producers and a range of commitments by supermarkets to tackle them.

Tesco is the clear front-runner on gender equality, with a comprehensive gender strategy in place. Tesco’s ground-breaking agreement with the global federation of trade unions, IUF, focuses on access to gender-sensitive “grievance mechanisms” – the process workers use to raise issues, complaints and concerns about things that negatively affect them at work – and on increasing women’s voices and representation in the workplace. Tesco is also the only supermarket in the scorecard that has started disclosing detailed data on women for some of its supply chains down to farm level.

Recent moves to tackle low wages are also promising, with Tesco embedding the living wage commitment into its purchasing practice in the banana sector, and Aldi and Lidl participating in the German Living Wage and Income Initiative.

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