Modern slavery: the human cost of cheap food?

Megan Tatum

MPs have hit out at supermarkets for not tackling human rights abuses in their supply chains. So what solutions do they propose?

Slavery and exploitation are endemic within supermarket supply chains. That was the contention of Kerry McCarthy MP as she led a debate at the House of Commons to mark World Food Day last week, urging retailers and the government to do more to tackle the abuse of workers across the sector.

“From the recent industrial action by staff at McDonald’s, Wetherspoon and TGI Fridays to the International Labour Organisation’s estimate of more than 1.1 million victims of slavery working in the agricultural sector, that is all part of the same picture, showing that the cheap food we often take for granted all too often comes at a human cost,” said McCarthy.

It was a view echoed across political parties. Often strongly. “Supermarkets have decimated high streets, destroyed livelihoods and distorted the food chain,” insisted Conservative MP John Hayes. “The exploitation… is not an aberration and is not marginal to supermarkets - it is intrinsic to their business model.”

So what’s behind these claims? Why were supermarkets singled out? And what were the suggestions raised for how modern day slavery might be addressed?

“Tortured and abused, with wages, food and sleep withheld”

McCarthy had done her homework, armed with a litany of recent examples to back up her claims. They included: Lithuanian workers trafficked to work in a UK meat processing plant and subjected to violence; a Cornish business owner jailed for forcing farm workers to live in squalid caravans; and illegal gangmasters overseeing the Italian tomato industry, from where 60% of UK tinned tomatoes are imported.

The seafood sector came in for particular criticism, with McCarthy citing an Irish permit scheme that saw African and Asian men trafficked onto trawlers and “too scared to speak up” as well as “horrific examples of slavery” in the Thai seafood sector uncovered by the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Read more: Princes hits 100% ethical tomato sourcing goal

“Workers were tortured and abused, with wages, food and sleep withheld,” she recounted. “Some men were kept at sea for months on end, transferred from one ship to another without ever seeing dry land. They were force-fed methamphetamines to keep them working for longer, and bodies were thrown overboard when they were unable to go on.”

Supermarkets more than any other element of the supply chain could bring about change, added McCarthy. “I am focusing today on supermarkets because that is where it is easiest for customers to interface and because they are so powerful within the market.”

Price pressures

Research by Oxfam in June found a direct correlation between drops in the prices paid by supermarkets to suppliers and increased risk of human rights violations in the supply chain. “This is basically propelling a race to the bottom on wages and rights,” she added.

The price of pineapples from Costa Rica to Germany, primarily for supplying Aldi and Lidl, fell by around 45% between 2002 and 2014, for example, despite increasing production costs, with the charity uncovering ‘poverty’ wages and poor conditions on two pineapple farms in the country.

Read more: Aldi to appoint human and labour rights director after criticism from Oxfam

Crucially, two major changes in the sector could be set to make matters worse, claimed MPs. Firstly, the increased buying power of the major supermarkets as a result of consolidation. Or “over-consolidation” as McCarthy saw it. Both the partnership between Tesco and Carrefour and the planned merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda would “cause yet more downward pressure on prices for suppliers” and ripe conditions for abuse, she said.

Then there is Brexit, which the likes of Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg have said repeatedly will lead to lower food prices. “There are too many in this place who enthusiastically extol the opportunities of getting our hands on even cheaper food in the post-Brexit world, but that would come at a terrible price: a drop in food standards, food safety, animal welfare and environmental protections, and the continued exploitation of workers around the globe,” summed up McCarthy.

Solutions

Grappling with vast complex challenges across global supply chains, the solutions proposed by McCarthy and fellow MPs for these dilemmas were, understandably, broad brush. 

Strengthening the Modern Slavery Act, introduced in 2015, was one suggestion. Currently, the Act requires companies with a turnover of more than £36m to publish a statement outlining steps to tackle exploitation in their supply chains. “However it does not require companies to take action, only that they make a statement saying what they are doing,” pointed out Labour MP Carolyn Harris.

Opinion: Collaboration is vital if we are to make progress on ending modern slavery

“If the government wants to lead on this issue internationally, a law of due diligence, whereby companies need to demonstrate they are actively seeking to end slavery in supply chains, would be a good place to start,” said McCarthy, in addition to “tough financial penalties” for non-compliance with the current criteria. According to the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, for example, only 19% of the agricultural sector is abiding by its current terms (albeit only 50% of companies fall within its scope).

Supermarkets must ensure they’re conducting “human rights due diligence in line with UN guiding principles” and pay their own staff the living wage (not a single supermarket is currently accredited by the Living Wage Foundation).

And consumers weren’t forgotten either, encouraged by MPs to buy Fairtrade products and utilise initiatives such as Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Barcode’ scorecard to track the performance of their local grocer.

Ultimately “the discovery of slavery in supply chains should hit businesses where it hurts most”, said Labour member Sandy Martin. “We should be shouting from the rooftops the names of those who take a stand, and holding liable all those who do not.”

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