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Oxfam: Supermarkets cashing in as food laborers suffer

Sou-Jie van Brunnersum
June 22, 2021

Charity group Oxfam has released a report saying that while supermarkets, especially German chains expanding in foreign markets, enjoyed a bumper pandemic 2020, food laborers were conducting "modern slave labor."

Woman collects tea leaves in Assam
Workers in Indian tea fields recounted poor working conditions with insufficient protection against COVID-19Image: Imago/Indiapicture

Charity group Oxfam warned on Tuesday that the pandemic had exacerbated inequality in the food industry and the network of global supply chains involved. 

German supermarket chains such as Lidl, Aldi, Edeka and Rewe experienced a "boom in sales" in the pandemic year of 2020; while producers in many poorer countries lost their jobs, worked in slave-like conditions and were inadequately protected from the coronavirus, Oxfam said in the report. 

"While the supermarket chains were cashing in, the workers who produce our food are fighting for their livelihoods," wrote Tim Zahn and Annika Zieske, authors of the report. 

Entitled "Pandemic profiteers and virus losers," the report examined working conditions on tea plantations in the Assam state in India, as well as coffee plantations in Brazil, grape fields in South Africa and in the fishing industry in Thailand.

In collaboration with partner organizations, Oxfam asked workers how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting them. They concluded that all four countries showed "exploitation and shocking cases of modern slave labor."

Oxfam cited extreme physical labor without running water and a lack of protection against pesticides and COVID-19 among coffee plantation workers in Brazil.

The pandemic was hitting women particularly hard, the report highlighted. Female workers were dismissed more often than the average worker and had to shoulder most of the additional nursing and care work.

A fisherman on the Mekong river in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai bordering Laos
Fishing in Thailand was among the supply chain areas examined in the reportImage: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

German supermarkets reap benefits 

The situation looked very different for German supermarkets. Oxfam found that their sales went up by 17% in 2020 and that the assets of their owners grew by up to 30%.

"The pandemic profits of the owners of Aldi Süd alone would have been enough to pay the living wages of around 4 million workers in the Brazilian coffee sector," the report said.

Aldi and Lidl's expansion into international markets has fueled rapid growth in recent years.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, "workers who make the food get less and less of the price of the products on sale in the supermarket," Oxfam said.

Oxfam found that in South Africa, for example, workers received only 1% percent of the sales price of the grapes they produce.

A farmer picks coffee beans in Espirito Santo, Brazil
Coffee plantation workers receive the least amount of return along the value chainImage: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

Germany passes law on supply chain ethics

Oxfam called for better protection measures against coronavirus at the beginning of global supply chains. The charity urged Aldi, Edeka, Lidl and Rewe to "properly pay the people who make our food and respect their rights."

It called on the German government to push for more far-reaching regulation in the European Union.

The supply chain law recently passed by the Bundestag was described as "a first step, but only a minimal solution."

The law, passed on June 11, requires companies to report human rights and environmental abuses along their direct supply chains. The law will go into effect in 2023 for roughly 600 large companies with 3,000 or more employees, and in 2024 for another 3,000 companies with 1,000 or more employees.

German subsidiaries of multinational companies or those with offices in Germany will also be required to report infractions.

The law seeks to stamp out abuses such as child labor. 

The European Union is also set to tackle supply chain legislation, with proposals expected from the European Commission later this year.

Oxfam's report published on Tuesday in German stems from the broader, 50-page report in English: "Not In this together: How supermarkets became the pandemic's winners while women workers are losing out."