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May 16, 2009

Tesco ‘breaking promise’ to South African fruit pickers on wages

Anti-poverty campaigners have accused Tesco of breaking a pledge to improve the pay and working conditions of South African fruit pickers who have helped the retail giant to record annual profits of more than £3bn.

Three years ago the company agreed to look at the plight of the workers – predominantly women – who are at the bottom of Tesco’s lengthy but highly profitable fruit supply chain, after embarrassing scrutiny of its overseas labour practices.

But interviews by the Guardian with female workers on Tesco supplier farms near Cape Town reveal they are still only being paid South Africa’s “minimum” rather than a “living” wage – which they complain leaves them barely enough to feed and clothe their children. Those interviewed are receiving just 1,231 rand, equivalent to £97.90, per month.

Under the UK’s Ethical Trading Initiative, which Tesco is signed up to, the supermarket agreed to ensure that “living wages are paid” and “wages should always be enough to meet basic needs and to provide some discretionary income.”

Simon McRae, senior campaigns officer at the anti-poverty charity War on Want, said: “For years Tesco has promised that its suppliers’ workers will earn a living wage. But while Tesco is breaking records with £3bn profits, workers picking its fruit are worse off amid inflation on far less than a living wage. Now the British government must act to stop this abuse.”

The fruit farms in the Cape area of South Africa supply some of Britain’s leading supermarkets, including Tesco, and employ both women and men. But two out of three insecure seasonal workers are women often lacking the same benefits as men, who are more likely to be on permanent contracts. Tesco is one of the biggest customers of the farms and is also the UK’s largest buyer of South African fruit. War on Want acknowledges that other supermarkets source fruit from the same area but it has made Tesco the focus of its campaign because of the scale of its operation.

In 2006, in an unusual act of defiance, a female fruit picker from South Africa condemned Tesco’s labour practices in person at the company’s annual general meeting, claiming that workers such as herself were receiving “breadline” wages.

Gertruida Baartman attended the annual meeting of Britain’s biggest retailer as a shareholder after the NGO ActionAid bought her a single share and flew her to London. She received a standing ovation when the AGM heard she could barely feed her children on the wages she got for picking fruit.

The Tesco chairman, David Reid, promised Gertruida that she would not be put at a disadvantage as a result of her actions and that Tesco would look into its social and environmental auditing procedures in South Africa.

In April Tesco announced record-breaking global sales of more than £1bn a week and better than expected annual profits of more than £3bn despite the impact of the global downturn.

A recent report from the charity ActionAid revealed the daunting scale of the fruit-picking industry. More than 104,000 workers are employed permanently on approximately 3,000 fruit farms in South Africa while tens of thousands of women are increasingly employed as a “reserve army” of part-time labourers to do contract and informal work, picking and packing the fruit for export.

South Africa supplies most of its deciduous fruit – apples, pears, plums and peaches – to Europe, especially the UK. Total exports from South Africa are valued at close to 1bn rand [£86m] a year, with around a third going to the UK.

A Tesco spokesperson said it sourced fruit from around 790 farms in South Africa, “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”.

Tesco said it believed its ethical trade programme in South Africa went beyond “anything currently attempted by other large supermarkets.” All its South African suppliers were committed to a model “base code” within the ETI, as well as local South African codes and laws. “These include clear guidance on wages, accommodation and working hours. Tesco uses independent auditors to assess progress.”

But the company said it did not think it was “appropriate” for a non-South African organisation to dictate specific pay levels. “While there remain important challenges, we believe that the South African fruit industry with its partners, including Tesco, is making real progress on improving worker conditions.

“Our responsibility on wages is to ensure that suppliers are following guidance in the ETI base code and national laws. We do not believe it would be appropriate for a non-South African organisation to dictate specific sums – particularly as the national government retains close links with unions and worker organisations.”


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