Supermarkets such as Tesco, Asda, Aldi and Lidl are big players in not just the food industry but also garment retail. A quarter of all clothing in the UK is bought from supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda, which gives these global discount retailers immense power over global markets and garment economies.
War on Want has been working on workers’ rights issues in sweatshops for several years as part of a campaign to get the UK government to regulate overseas supply chains. After decades of scandals and abuse in the garment industry, mistreatment of workers is still endemic, only made worse by aggressive buying practices from supermarkets in forcing down prices to suppliers.
Without regulation, supermarkets will continue paying lip service to improving conditions.
December 2010 – War on Want and Labour Behind the Label published a joint report: Taking Liberties: The story behind the UK High Street. Surveyed the garment industry in Gurgaon, India. It showed that workers making clothes for higher end retailers – M&S, Debenhams, Arcadia, Monsoon and NEXT – are subject to the same kinds of mistreatment and poor pay that are faced by garment workers working on budget clothing lines.
April 2010 - Legal victory in a complaint against Lidl - A coalition between the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Customer Protection Agency (VZ) in Hamburg, and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) achieved a legal victory against the market-leading German discounter Lidl.
The ECCHR, together with the CCC, supported the Customer Protection Agency in Hamburg in filing a complaint against Lidl on 6 April, 2010. In this complaint, Lidl was accused of misleading customers as to its compliance with social and labor standards in its supplying factories. Through such advertisements, Lidl deceives consumers and gains an unfair competitive advantage. This complaint marks the first time in Germany that a German corporation is taken to court over poor working conditions.
Only ten days after the submission of the complaint, Lidl conceded. The corporation effectively admitted to the allegations made against it and retracted its advertisement promises of worldwide fair working conditions in textile supplying plants in Bangladesh.
Research by the Clean Clothes Campaign reveals that while supermarkets are seeing massive profits from their cheap fast fashion lines, workers in their supply chains face increasing poverty, appalling conditions, and serious workers rights violations. The “Cashing In” report conducted research in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, interviewing factory workers for Tesco, Walmart, Aldi and Lidl. It showed that major supermarkets' price breaking approach to garment retail created major labour rights issues for garment workers in their supply chains:
- Working weeks for supermarket garment workers were found to be as long as 90 hours, with overtime unpaid. Workers in a Sri Lankan factory supplying Tesco said they worked n average of more than 64 hours pe week. Of ten factories surveyed in Bangladesh no factory had a regular working week of less than 60 hours and more than half exceed this.
"We do a lot of overtime. Almost ever day there is at least one hour extra. We are called on Sundays as well. However, our monthly wage slip will not show all the overtime that we do. It will quote only 1-2 hours as overtime in a month" - Woman at a Tesco Supplier, India.
- Poverty wages were paid to workers so low that families were often malnourished. Garment workers in Giant's supply chains should have the right to earn a living wage – one that meets their basic needs and those of their families. In Bangladesh, the lowest basic wage (before overtime) was 13.5 euros a month at a Lidl supplier, and in India, unskilled workers started on 45 euros per month. Nowhere did workers earn a living wage.
“We have to sleep in crowned rooms made out of wooden planks for walls so there is no escape from the mosquitoes. I use the meagre salary I receive very frugally as I have to pay for the boarding house and spend for food while sending some money home for sisters' studies” - Woman in a Sri Lankan factory supplying Tesco and Walmart.
- A strong resistance to any attempts at worker organising was found. The factories deprived all workers of any forum to voice concerns. At an Aldi supplier in Bangladesh, one male worker had been fired for association with a trade union while two female workers were not only sacked but forced to leave the neighbourhood for attempting to organise workers.
“If we try to form a union we will lose our job. So I do not want any union” - Worker at a Lidl and Walmart supplier in Bangladesh.
- Giants are increasingly using temporary contracts with their workers. This results in a lack of job security for employees, and means it is even harder to form trade unions. In a Tesco supplier in Sri Lanka, more than half the workforce were employed on casual contracts, compared to just a few in another Tesco supplier. Twice as many workers in this first factory said that they were afraid of losing their jobs.
“I worry about my security. I don't have job security because we are subcontracted. I am always afraid that I will have no money to pay in a month” – Tesco supplier, Thailand
The key cause of these issues was identified in the retailers’ own purchasing practices - prices and schedules imposed on suppliers created some of the biggest obstacles to implementing the very international labour standards the companies committed to. The CCC's report calls for:
1. Giant supermarket retailers to address the impact of their purchasing practices.
2. Stronger action to be taken by governments to protect garment workers rights in the face of company cost cutting and the increasing trend for fast fashion.
3. A greater public awareness of issues, to be achieved through the international Better Bargain campaign, shining the spotlight on the real cost of cheap supermarket clothing.
The Corporate Watch/Labour Behind the Label report "Off the Peg: Tesco and the Clothing Industry in Asia", pulls together information about Tesco's role in the UK market and the effect it has on Asian suppliers.