Poverty wages, worker abuse continue on farms supplying top supermarkets, including Whole Foods


Despite new commitments, Whole Foods continues to fall short with human rights abuses happening within its supply chains, even in the US

Food workers on farms and plantations that supply tea, fruit and vegetables to supermarkets such as Whole Foods continue to face human rights abuses, says Oxfam today.

The latest research from Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes Campaign, which includes in-depth interviews with workers in the United States, India and Brazil, shows how top supermarkets’ relentless drive to cut costs and maximize profits is continuing to fuel poverty pay and worker abuse in their supply chains. Whole Foods’ parent company Amazon’s new supplier standards are important first steps, but do not go far enough to address the severity of the problems.

“Supermarkets can no longer avoid the mounting evidence of human suffering behind the products they sell. Now is the time for all US supermarkets to tackle human rights abuses in their supply chains,” said Sarah Zoen, Oxfam America’s Senior Advisor for Private Sector Engagement.

In North Carolina, workers on sweet potato farms that supply Whole Foods reported working up to 14 hours a day in oppressive heat with few rest breaks and often limited access to toilets. Many say they are paid low wages and are too scared to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.

“Many workers don’t do anything because they are afraid they will not be brought back next year, for fear of losing their jobs,” said Pedro, a worker with whom Oxfam spoke. Another worker, Arturo, said simply that he was afraid of “dying in the fields because of the heat or getting injured.”

In addition to the interviews in North Carolina, new Oxfam research shows workers around the globe are dealing with the same harsh working conditions. In North East Brazil, Oxfam found evidence of widespread poverty and abuse among temporary workers on grape, melon and mango farms that supply top supermarkets like Whole Foods. Workers, many of whom are women, also reported developing serious allergies and skin diseases as a result of pesticides and other chemicals without adequate protection.

Interviews with more than 500 workers on 50 tea estates in Assam, India, also revealed that cholera and typhoid are common as many workers lack access to toilets and safe drinking water. Wages are so low that half the workers interviewed received ration cards from the government – despite the fact that many women tea pickers regularly clock up to 13 hours of backbreaking work a day. Whole Foods and other European supermarkets source their own brand of tea from Assam.

“The abuse of workers in the food industry is not confined to a few problematic products or a few troublesome locations, but is instead systemic across our entire food system,” continued Zoen. “Our food system is built on big supermarkets squeezing suppliers to cut down costs, increasing poverty, hunger, and human rights violations across the supply chain.”

This new research analysis also revealed that supermarkets are taking an ever-increasing share of the price paid by grocery shoppers – much of which is channeled to already wealthy shareholders and owners. US supermarkets and tea brands capture almost 94 percent of the price of a pack of black tea with less than 1 percent accruing to workers on tea estates.

Supermarkets are under increasing pressure from shoppers and investors to act. This includes a statement from 50 global investors with assets worth more than $3 trillion today calling on supermarkets to publish information on where they source their products and to tackle human rights abuse in their supply chains.

Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign was launched last year to examine the policies and practices that affect workers and farmers in the food supply chains of some of the biggest and fastest growing supermarkets in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the US. In the US, Oxfam looked at six of its biggest and growing supermarkets including Albertson, Ahold Delhaize (the parent company to US supermarkets such as Food Lion, Giant, and Stop &Shop), Costco, Kroger, Walmart and Whole Foods. More than 200,000 consumers last year put top US supermarkets on notice to change their ways and our latest Supermarket Scorecard update shows that some supermarkets are starting to make changes.

“Progress has been slow and no supermarket is doing anywhere near enough to protect the rights of the people who produce our food or to treat women fairly,” concluded Zoen. “Whole Foods is a laggard in our scorecard and has the most to gain from taking urgent action. Oxfam is ready to work with Whole Foods and any other retailer to find lasting solutions for workers and farmers in the supply chain.”



Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign rates and ranks 16 retailers on how well they are tackling poverty and abuse in their supply chain. The latest assessment, published in July 2019, shows that while some retailers are starting to make changes, progress is patchy and slow and no company is doing anywhere near enough to protect the rights of the people who produce our food.

Albertsons, Costco, Kroger, Walmart and Whole Foods are US supermarkets; Aldi North, Aldi South, Edeka, Lidl, Rewe, are German; Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco are British and Ahold Delhaize, Jumbo, and PLUS is Dutch. Many of these supermarkets operate internationally.

The US media brief, “Whole Foods Continues to Fall Short”.

The Global media brief, “Workers’ Rights in Supermarket Supply Chains”.

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