Oxfam report reveals women as biggest victims of exploitation by global supermarkets

Farmworkers harvesting grapes. (Jaco Marais/Gallo Images)
Farmworkers harvesting grapes. (Jaco Marais/Gallo Images)

New evidence shows that female labourers bear the brunt of the economic exploitation faced by millions of farmers and workers in food supply chains.

Oxfam International's report, titled Ripe for Change: Ending human suffering in supermarket supply chains, discusses pervasive low wages and the widespread denial of labour rights among people working to supply different products to supermarkets around the world.

Evidence shows that while the food industry generates billions of dollars in revenue every year, the rewards are skewed towards the powerful. Only a fraction of what customers spend at the checkout counter reaches those who produce their food, according to the report.

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"It would take a woman processing shrimp at a typical plant in Indonesia or Thailand more than 4 000 years to earn what the chief executive at a top US supermarket earns on average, in a year," is one example cited by the report.

An example closer to home reveals that: "In less than five days, the highest paid chief executive at a UK supermarket earns the same as a woman picking grapes on a typical farm in South Africa will earn in her entire lifetime."

The report notes that deeply entrenched gender norms are the cause for the severe impact on women.

Systemic economic exploitation

They are denied the right to own land, less likely to enjoy trade union representation, shouldering most unpaid care work and are more likely to face discrimination over pay and progression to more senior roles, the report said.

"Women's work in food supply chains goes unseen and their voices at the negotiation table are the least heard," reads the report.

"It is no surprise, therefore, that women are concentrated in the lowest paid, least secure roles across the agri-food sector, providing a reserve of cheap, flexible labour on which modern supply chains are built."

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Oxfam clarifies that while these surveys are mere snapshots, they hint at a bigger picture of systemic economic exploitation. The Bureau for the Appraisal of Social Impacts for Citizen Information analysed the value chains of 12 common products sourced by supermarkets around the world.

The results revealed that in none of the examples are the average earnings of small-scale farmers and workers enough for a decent standard of living or sufficient to realise their human rights.

Their analysis shows that where women provide the majority of the labour in a food supply chain, the gap between average earnings and the amount needed for a basic but decent standard of living is the greatest.

Oxfam case studies in Italy and Thailand found agricultural suppliers valuing women for their dexterity in peeling prawns and picking fruit in some of the lowest paid positions in the food supply chain.

'One the cruellest paradoxes of our time'

These women are thus excluded from basic benefits available to men, such as minimum wages, sick pay or pensions.

In what the report describes as one of "the cruellest paradoxes of our time" – the people producing our food are often the ones going without enough to feed themselves.

In South Africa, more than 90% of surveyed women workers on grape farms reported not having enough to eat in the previous month. Nearly a third said they or a family member had gone to bed hungry at least once in that time, according to Oxfam's survey.

In Italy, 75% of surveyed women workers on fruit and vegetable farms said they or a family member had cut back on meals in the previous month because their household could not afford sufficient food.

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More than 90% of workers in Thailand's seafood processing plants reported going without enough food in the previous month. Of those, 54% of the women workers said there had been no food to eat at home of any kind on several occasions in that time.

The Oxfam report discusses a plethora of topics relating to the food supply chain such as growing inequality and suffering and a possible food retail revolution.

"We believe it's time to build a more human economy that rewards work, not wealth," Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima writes in the foreword.

"We know that path is not easy, but this report shows that we can all – governments, companies and citizens – do much more to make this vision a reality for those producing our food. We call on everyone reading it to join us."

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