Thursday, February 14, 2008


Just nuts: Supermarkets thrive on women cashew workers’ poverty

New ActionAid report shows that poverty pay and dangerous conditions are the secret behind the success of UK supermarkets. Who Pays? shows that the way UK supermarkets do business with developing countries is locking women workers into appallingly low pay and dangerous conditions.

In India the report examines the explosion in black market cashew nuts processing factories and how women workers are hit hardest by the drive to cut costs, caused partly by big supermarkets’ relentless pursuit of profits:

“That’s more than I get for three weeks’ work,” Mercy, a cashew nut worker says on discovering that the kilo of cashew nuts, which she has been paid Rs 4.25 to shell, will retail for Rs 757.10 or more in a UK supermarket.

Not only does the cashew factory job pay a pittance, it is also jeopardizing Mercy’s health.

“I get pains in my knees from squatting all day. I get headaches, dizziness and vomiting from breathing in the smoke (caused by the cashew roasting process).”

Women cashew nut workers also showed ActionAid researchers the permanent scars on their hands due to the corrosive acids produced by the nuts when shelled. Workers earn as little as Rs 25.2 (30 UK pence) a day, less than half of the minimum wage.

Mercy is one of an estimated 500,000 women who process cashews for a living in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and of two million people employed by the cashew industry across India, the world’s biggest exporter of shelled cashews. Over 6,700 tonnes were shipped to the UK from the country in 2005. Of these, at least 80% are sold through supermarkets.

Profits sans human rights

Babu Mathew, country director, ActionAid India says, “Securing a minimum wage and decent working conditions is already a big challenge for women and other vulnerable workers. Pressure from big retailers to cut costs makes their struggle all the more difficult. Foreign investment has to come with human rights standards attached.”

ActionAid researchers found that for every pound shoppers spend on cashews in British supermarkets, just one penny – and sometimes only half a penny – goes to the women workers who process the nuts. Another 22 pence is shared between farmers, traders, processing companies and exporters in India.

Workers are being trapped into a cycle of poverty and insecurity as a result of UK supermarkets’ demands for lower prices and constant changes to orders.

“Core labour standards are clearly being flouted. The Indian government is obliged to ensure that these are met. Workers also need to know their rights. In Kanyakumari ActionAid is supporting a local group in educating women and children on labour standards and encouraging workers to come together to demand minimum wages and decent working conditions,” says Babu Mathew.

The core labour standards are 1. Freedom of association (the right to form a trade union). 2. No forced labour. 3. No discrimination (in pay and conditions). 4. No child labour. “When you try to cut prices you are encouraging the re-emergence of all of these things,” adds Mathew.

What can the British government do?

“The big four UK supermarkets are increasingly eager to prove their ethical credentials to their customers. In reality the supermarkets’ ever-growing profits are boosted by the scandalously low wages and appalling conditions suffered by the women who produce the food and clothes we buy every day,” said Claire Melamed, head of trade and corporates campaign at ActionAid.

UK supermarkets are currently under investigation. ActionAid is calling for the UK Government to introduce an independent watchdog that would hold supermarkets to account for their actions overseas. Even the industry’s most effective voluntary code, the Ethical Trading Initiative, has not delivered the sweeping changes needed.

Claire Melamed says, “The supermarket giants have proved unwilling or unable to police themselves effectively. The British government needs to think very hard about the kind of corporate image UK PLC wants to portray – and if it isn’t one of exploitation and hardship then it must step in now.”

“A watchdog would make sure that UK supermarkets send a bit more of the value back to countries like India and Bangladesh that produce the goods that fill their shelves. Workers would then have a better chance of taking matters into their own hands, and negotiating higher wages and better conditions,” adds Melamed.

ActionAid is also asking the Competition Commission to recommend an independent supermarket regulator as part of its ongoing inquiry into the UK grocery market


More than £7 out of every £10 spent on groceries in Britain goes into supermarket tills
Poor countries earn £7 million a day from food and clothes bought by UK shoppers in supermarkets
Women make up 60% to 90% of the clothing and fresh produce workforce in developing countries
Photo credits: Tom Pietrasik/ActionAid

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