The supermarket giant Tesco announced record profits last month of £2 billion. Yet a report by ActionAid reveals the appalling conditions of thousands of women workers in South Africa who grow fruit that ends up on Tesco's shelves.
Tesco is Britain's biggest buyer of South African fruit. Despite the company's so called commitment to corporate social responsibility, and the existence of laws in South Africa designed to protect agricultural workers, ActionAid found unacceptable conditions among the temporary labourers interviewed on Tesco-accredited farms.
Tawana Fraser works as a 'permanent casual' labourer on a pear farm that supplies Tesco. 'I get 378 rand [£32.50] pay every two weeks,' she says. 'I can't afford school fees for my daughter or go to school functions or buy school uniforms.' The minimum wage in South Africa for two weeks work should be 419 rand [£36], however poverty wages are widespread. Tawana goes on to say, 'They spray pesticides while the women are working in the orchards. We have no gloves or protective clothing and we have to climb wet ladders to pick pears from the trees while they are still wet from the pesticides.' She also says that spraying happens twice a week and that nobody on the farm wears protective clothing.
The trend towards more casual employment is partly a result of the supermarket buying practices. Under intense pressure from other food chains Tesco demands greater flexibility and the harshest just in time methods of production. The intention is to squeeze out as much profit as possible. The result is that thousands of workers are forced to live in dismal housing conditions in compounds, shanty towns and informal settlements. Gloria Nzama finds work only intermittently on Tesco-accredited farms. She told ActionAid, 'I sleep on the floor on a plastic sheet... there's no water or electricity and the walls of my shack are made of cardboard.'
Today over 104,000 workers are employed permanently on around 3,000 fruit farms in South Africa. But this is supported by tens of thousands of women workers who are increasingly employed under casual and insecure conditions. Total exports to Europe are valued at £86 million a year.
ActionAid is trying to pressure the British government and other G8 countries to push for stronger international rules on business and human rights. At a time when Blair and Brown are trumpeting their concern for the poor in Africa, it is up to workers in this country to make sure they deliver on their promises.