Despite new commitments, human rights abuses continue to endure in Whole Foods Market’s supply chains in the United States and abroad, according to a report released Thursday by Oxfam America.
The report, part of the nonprofit’s Behind the Barcodes campaign, includes interviews with workers in the United States, India and Brazil to demonstrate how top supermarkets seek to cut costs and maximize profits by “continuing to fuel poverty pay and worker abuse in their supply chains.”
“Supermarkets can no longer avoid the mounting evidence of human suffering behind the products they sell. Now is the time for all U.S. supermarkets to tackle human rights abuses in their supply chains,” said Sarah Zoen, senior advisor for private sector engagement at Oxfam America, one of 19 groups under the Oxfam International umbrella, which extends to 90 countries and is aimed at “future free from the injustice of poverty.”
Whole Foods’ parent company Amazon rolled out new supplier standards last month, which include some significant commitments to eliminate all forms of forced labor, promote freedom of association, and tackle migrant worker exploitation. Oxfam said the new standards “are important first steps, but do not go far enough to address the severity of the problems.”
The report features an interview with workers on sweet potato farms in North Carolina that supply Whole Foods. The workers report 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 North East Brazil, Oxfam said it “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, where Whole Foods sources its own brand of tea, 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.
“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,” said 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.”
U.S. supermarkets and tea brands keep almost 94 percent of the price of a pack of black tea with less than 1 percent accruing to workers on tea estates, Oxfam said.
Supermarkets are under increasing pressure from shoppers and investors to act, said Oxfam, which also published a statement from 50 global investors with assets worth more than $3 trillion 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 rates and ranks 16 retailers on how well they are tackling poverty and abuse in their supply chain. The latest assessment, published in July, 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.