The war on wages

 By Gabrielle Pickard
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, April 13, 2010
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Prolific profits defying the economic downturn surrounding exploitation and unethical practices send charities on the warpath who are putting pressure on the British government to act.

Since the UK's most successful supermarket, Tesco, announced making a record-breaking 3 billion pounds in profit last year, charities are rivaling the ethicality of those at the bottom of the company's food supply chain, allowed to "break their backs" picking fruit all day to earn a pittance in return. The situation, opponents warn, has become even more diabolical since Tesco agreed to sign up to the UK's ethical trading initiative, designed to purge the exploitation of those third-world workers involved in producing products for British companies.

It is of little surprise that because of what has been referred as "insincere promises" to increase the wages and improve the working conditions of their fruit suppliers "living on the breadline," anti-poverty campaigners are on the attack. A spokesperson for one anti-poverty charity, War on Want remarked about the supermarket giants:

"For years, Tesco has promised that its suppliers' workers will earn a living wage. But while Tesco is breaking records with three billion pounds profits, workers picking its fruit are on far less than a living wage. Now the British government must act to stop this abuse."

But how far can both the British government and executives of large supermarkets like Tesco actually intervene in these situations? Part of the agreement of the ethical trading initiative is to ensure that "wages should always be enough to meet basic needs and to provide some discretionary income." Fruit pickers in South Africa are paid 1,231 rand a month which is equivalent to 97.20 pounds. This is South Africa's legal minimal wage but according to workers there, is barely enough to survive on, especially for those with children. Tesco and other lucrative British businesses buying South African produce are not, therefore, technically breaking any laws. Should the blame be entirely pointed at the South African government for introducing a minimum wage that has been referred to as "a minimum wage but not a living wage?" Or should the UK intercede under moral obligations?

Wendy Pekeur, the general secretary of Sikhula Sonke, an organization that fights for the rights of workers, deems that ethically, there is a strong case for change.

"Tesco is the biggest importer of South African fruit and wine, and claims all the goods are made under ethical circumstances. If it's ethical, why are some workers finding it difficult to feed their children? We're not asking for luxury. We're just asking for what we deserve: a living wage," said Pekeur.

Although it is not just Tesco who are involved in the pitiable circumstances surrounding those on the bottom rung of extremely hierarchical career ladders. Many of the fruit farms in South Africa provide several British supermarkets with produce, but as Tesco is the UK's largest buyer of South African fruit, they remain the fruit farms' biggest customers. This given, and the fact that Tesco seemed to have resisted the recession by making record annual profits, is why the supermarket, which emerged from a solitary shop in 1924, is the main source of censure for anti-poverty campaigners.

A study conducted by the charity Action Aid exposed that whilst more than 104,000 people were employed on South African fruit farms, many, mostly of whom are women, are temporary workers on contracts, labeled as the "reserve army" and called upon for when supply for South African fruit becomes particularly demanding.

Predictably Tesco has defended it actions arguing that it is providing a profuse amount of jobs in areas where employment is scarce. According to the supermarket: "In sourcing fruit from about 790 farms in South Africa it is representing a sizeable investment in jobs for thousands of workers, although it is up to individual suppliers to decide how many employees they take on depending on factors such as seasonal demand."

In complete disparity to the argument pooled by anti-poverty charities such as Action Aid and War on Want, Tesco argues that its ethical trade program went beyond "anything currently attempted by other large supermarkets." The company went further to defend itself by announcing that it does not believe it should be responsible and that it would be "inappropriate" to dictate wage levels in other countries.

When asked about the working situations in places like Cape Town, Tesco checkout assistant and single mother Lisa Morley believes she too is being exploited. Although Ms Morley works 42 hours a week at Tesco, the salary she brings home each month leaves things very tight for herself and her three children. The Tesco worker told me: "It is all very well to say that it is unfair that the workers in South Africa will not see any of the 3 billion profits, but will we? The checkout staff's backs also suffer from bending over a checkout for nine hours a day. What the bosses should do is to share out the profits equally between all workers involved with Tesco's profits. You can't say fairer than that."

Whilst the supermarket giant may have come along way since its original "pile it high, sell it cheap" motto, perhaps the directors should be "piling" up the wages by offering some of their billions pounds of profit to those at the bottom end of the hierarchy. Then they may be less likely to be accused of being "cheap".

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:




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