Curbing supermarkets' power: will the Groceries Code Adjudicator have the teeth to bite?

Tea picking in Kenya
An investigation has raised questions over the treatment of workers at Kenyan tea estates. Photo: Getty
Tackling the unfair buying practices of the big supermarkets is a vital step forward for securing the rights of over a million workers. From fruit to textiles to cut flowers, abuses in the supply chain are rife. Now we must guard against lobbying from the retail giants, says Murray Worthy

After years of campaigning by activists throughout Britain the government has finally promised to curb supermarket bullying by introducing a watchdog. The Queen’s Speech contained a pledge to introduce new legislation for a Groceries Code Adjudicator to police the buying practices of the UK’s biggest supermarkets.

War on Want has campaigned for many years to end the exploitation and abuse of workers in the supply chains of supermarkets and has been at the forefront of the campaign to introduce a supermarket watchdog. Tackling the unfair buying practices is a vital step forward to securing the rights of over a million workers in the largest supermarkets’ supply chains.

In 2005, the charity published a report that revealed how Asda squeezed its banana suppliers. Asda sparked a banana retail price war with lasting effects on the banana industry and banana workers worldwide. The report cited how Asda’s exclusive deal with Del Monte, contracted at what industry experts describe as a 'ridiculously low price', meant that the supermarket was supplied with bananas grown and harvested under some of the worst labour and environmental conditions in the world.

Independent growers in countries with adequate worker and environmental protection, such as Costa Rica, could no longer sell to Asda and other British supermarkets without making a loss.

These abuses were not a one-off, confined only to the fruit industry. In 2007 the charity launched further research which showed how women in Colombia, growing flowers for sale in UK supermarkets, faced poverty wages, health problems including repetitive strain injuries and risked miscarriages through exposure to pesticides. Employees complained about their pay, health, working time - up to 15 hours a day - and firms' anti-union hostility at farms which flower exporters claimed ensured ethical treatment for workers and the environment. The workers, mostly single mothers, earned just over £24 a week, less than half a living wage.

Moreover, in 2009 the Guardian, helped by War on Want, found women on Tesco supplier farms near Cape Town earned only £97.90 a  month, barely enough to feed and clothe their children. Yet three years earlier the company agreed to address the workers’ plight after fruit picker Gertruida Baartman received a standing ovation at Tesco’s annual meeting when she told how she struggled to raise her family on 'breadline' wages. 

And War on Want in 2010 warned millions of tea drinkers in Britain that their breakfast cuppa may come from Indian workers toiling for 7p an hour – well below a living wage. Research showed that workers in northern India earned just £15.45 (1,220 rupees) a month, compared to a living wage of at least 3,500 rupees (£44.34) a month. The report also revealed that tea factory workers in central Kenya supplying British supermarkets toil up to 74 hours a week for a mere £39.52 (5,000 Kenyan shillings) a month – half a living wage.

After three months Kenyan workers were entitled to permanent contracts, with benefits including sick pay, maternity or paternity leave, and paid annual holidays. But factory staff were routinely laid off before this period expired and then rehired, losing these benefits. Kenyan tea pickers interviewed were even worse off than factory workers, earning on average only £24.18 (3,060 shillings) a month, far below a living wage. Pickers worked long hours on their feet all day, with heavy baskets on their backs, often in harsh weather.

Thousands of people have signed petitions, spoken to their MPs and engaged thousands more in joining the fight for the rights of workers in supermarket supply chains. The supermarkets have resisted the introduction of a watchdog every step of the way, and without the constant pressure from the public this huge step may never have happened.

The proposed watchdog would be responsible for enforcing a code of practice that was introduced in February 2010 following Competition Commission reports in 2000 and 2008 which clearly showed the need for a regulator. Its role would be to stop big supermarkets abusing their powers by passing on excessive risks and costs to their suppliers, which often have huge subsequent impacts on workers’ rights.

The adjudicator’s remit is set to include indirect as well as direct suppliers. This ensures a wider range of suppliers in other countries will be included, not just UK companies with direct links to supermarkets. Many firms may fear speaking out in case this affects their relationship with supermarkets. But the adjudicator will be able to take complaints from third parties, such as trade associations, unions and non-governmental organisations.

It is vital that these measures remain in the bill as the legislation passes through parliament and that they are not watered down through intense lobbying from the supermarket giants. Indeed, the bill needs to be strengthened to enable the adjudicator to impose fines, since at present the regulation would only initially allow the watchdog to name and shame guilty supermarkets.  Without real powers to fine supermarkets, as well as to fully investigate claims by trade unions and campaigners, this could still result in a dog with no bite.

Murray Worthy is a campaigner with War on Want

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