Food sector workers are struggling during the pandemic

Anna Triponel

June 21, 2021
Our key takeaway: As supermarkets’ earnings have grown, so too have the risks faced by their supply chain workers. From low wages, to safety and modern slavery, women are the hardest hit. A business model re-think is recommended.

In its new report ‘Not In This Together: How Supermarkets Became Pandemic Winners While Women Workers Are Losing Out’, Oxfam finds that:

  • Shareholders win, while essential workers lose. Oxfam observes that supermarket profits have risen significantly, and these net profits have primarily been distributed to shareholders via dividends and share buybacks. Oxfam contrasts this with the workers and producers (especially women) across the globe who have seen their incomes stagnate or even fall, while their rights continue to be violated. Further, few supermarkets “have taken the opportunity to invest in longer-term supply chain improvements to benefit the food producers and workers experiencing extreme hardship due to the pandemic.” Oxfam points to an “extractive business model”, characterised by an “unfair distribution of value across supermarkets’ high-risk supply chains.” To illustrate, “workers’ share of the end consumer price was consistently very low for wine (around 1%), tea (between 0.7% and 3%) and shrimp (less than 1%); it had declined for coffee since 2010, and was highly volatile for rice.”
  • Violation of workers’ rights – and women’s in particular – is evident across multiple food supply chains in different regions. Oxfam has compiled new research on working conditions in the production of coffee in Brazil, basmati rice in Pakistan, wine in South Africa, Assam tea production in India and seafood production in Thailand. Oxfam finds that most workers and farmers do not earn a living income or wage, and some live in slavery-like working conditions. Women are the hardest hit: “COVID-19 has exacerbated existing structural gender inequalities and made the situation even more dire for women workers and farmers.”
  • Call on supermarkets to change their core business model to distribute more power and value to women in their supply chains. Oxfam calls on supermarkets to urgently (1) revisit relevant policies and practices to factor in the risks to workers and small-scale farmers (and women in particular) from COVID-19 and the impact on their job and income security, (2) address actual and potential human rights violations and respect workers’ rights, including by committing to achieving living wages in supply chains, (3) adopt a comprehensive gender policy and action plan to ensure that women’s rights are respected, in supermarkets’ own operations and supply chains, and (4) shift corporate practice on maximizing shareholder payouts and redirect spending towards long-term supply chain investment that ensures fair and decent working conditions. Oxfam also underscores the importance of supermarket transparency.

For more, see Anouk Franck and Art Werapong Prapha, Not In This Together: How Supermarkets Became Pandemic Winners While Women Workers Are Losing Out (Oxfam, 22 June 2021)

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