Dear supermarkets, can we have food without human suffering please?

Rachel Wilshaw Food & livelihoods, Private sector

Too often the people who produce our food are living in poverty and going hungry themselves. Rachel Wilshaw shares the findings of our new report and explains why we are calling on consumers and UK supermarkets to act.

The people producing our food are often going hungry themselves. This is the standout finding of an Oxfam report published today, Ripe for Change: Ending human suffering in supermarket supply chains.

At one prawn processing plant in Thailand, 90% of the women we spoke to said that they had gone without food in the last month. The same was true for women picking grapes on a farm in South Africa.

What workers told Oxfam:

‘I didn’t like the overtime. In addition to the sudden notice, the duration was not clear. It could be one hour, it could also be more. I could only go home if the shrimp was finished.’

‘I’m not happy. I don’t have a contract, I don’t know my wage.’ 

‘Money is extremely tight. We must cut down on food to be able to pay our children’s school fees.’

We analysed the value chains of 12 common products from Asia, Africa and Latin America sold in seven consumer countries and looked at who really benefits (using share of value to show how economic returns are distributed). We found that across the basket of products, the percentage of the UK consumer price that reaches small-scale farmers and workers appears to have fallen from 7.6% to 5.7% in the 20 years to 2015. The share is even lower in the case of Brazilian orange juice, Ecuadorian bananas, Kenyan green beans, Indian tea, Vietnamese prawns and Indonesian canned tuna. The share taken by UK supermarkets, meanwhile, increased over that period, from 41% to nearly 53%.

Our analysis is that the depression of prices paid to suppliers over 20 years, coupled with inadequate government support in producer countries for small-scale farmers and workers, has both increased the risk of human and labour rights violations and, as Oxfam highlighted in January, driven greater global inequality. And the situation is much worse for women, who are concentrated in the lowest paid, least secure roles.

The UK sector, as outlined in our briefing paper UK Supermarket supply chains: ending human suffering behind our food, is one of the most diverse and sophisticated in the world and at £185bn per year, accounts for half of all retail spend. The sector is exceptionally concentrated, with 67% of the market controlled by four companies – and media reports that two of them are seeking to merge. It does some things well, for instance it has some of the best food production standards in the world for food quality and animal welfare. Some supermarkets have embraced Fairtrade products – thanks to pressure from their customers over the last few decades – and seven of the top 10 supermarkets in the UK are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, but while this really helps, it’s nowhere near enough to prevent suffering in supply chains.

We have developed a Supermarkets Scorecard to assess the biggest four and the two fastest-growing supermarkets on areas where we think they are well placed to drive positive change and maintain consumers’ trust. Things like, are they transparent about where they source their food from? Have they made an explicit commitment to human rights and to women’s equality? Is someone at senior level responsible for these? Do they source from the kind of businesses that want to pay a living wage to workers and a living income to small-scale farmers?

Of course, supermarkets cannot on their own solve the problems Oxfam is highlighting, and we recognize the challenging competitive environment in which so many UK retailers are operating. Consumers, many of whom have seen their own wages stagnate for a decade, are looking for low prices, and shareholders pressure them for ever-higher returns. But unless supermarkets start relying less on audits and labels and ‘know and show’ they have a handle on these issues, they are part of the problem.

There are growing reasons for supermarkets to reset their model. These include increasing pressure from investors, policy makers and civil society to tackle short-termism, tech-savvy consumers wanting more information on the provenance of their food and investor questions about modern slavery. In addition, governments need to set higher minimum wages and prices, investors need to pay more attention to human and labour rights, workers need opportunities to organise.

The impact of higher minimum wages on the incomes of workers

As consumers, we want good quality affordable food, but we don’t think anyone wants human suffering involved in getting it on supermarket shelves.

We are looking for supermarkets to step up. UK supermarkets are well placed to do this. Our analysis suggests there need be little or no impact on the prices of food products. Nor do people need to change their shopping habits, in fact it’s important we all continue to buy the products we love and shop at the same shops, whilst using our collective power to make them a more human place to shop.

We are asking customers of six supermarkets in the UK to write to their supermarket. Join us at and ask your supermarket for food without human suffering #behindthebarcodes.

Find out more about the campaign

Martin Walsh