By Danielle Smith, Oxfam Policy Advisor, Labour Rights
Walking down the aisles of your local supermarket, you could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the number of things to think about. Where your food comes from, how healthy it is, or the amount of plastic packaging it’s wrapped in. This International Workers’ Day, we want to celebrate the amazing women who produce our food. And push for action to tackle the challenges they face in their working lives.
As a customer, you have real power to make a change – and can stand alongside producers by calling on supermarkets to defend the rights of women workers in their supply chains.
Hard-working women pick your tea leaves and peel your prawns. And too often, women suffer more than their male counterparts when producing your food. Here are 7 things you didn’t know about the women who produce our food…
1.Women often have the lowest paid roles, or are paid less for doing the exact same thing as men
Across many food supply chains, women are found in the lowest paid and least secure roles.
Naima, a strawberry plantation worker in Morocco, was told, “Do not ruin the strawberries. They are worth more than you are.”
According to Naima, “Some men also work on the plantation, but sometimes they are paid more than us. Some of them do exactly the same work as women, so we do not understand why they are paid more, and sometimes, they have a different job, like loading and unloading the truck with strawberry boxes, in which cases they are paid more as well; but it is not more difficult than picking the strawberries!”
2. Degrading working conditions hit women particularly hard
Women in prawn-processing factories in Indonesia and Thailand, linked to international supermarket supply chains, told researchers that toilet breaks are controlled by (usually male) supervisors and used as a form of discipline.
Several workers said they face the indignity of not being allowed to bring sanitary pads to work. “I could only change my pad when I had my rest time in the dorm,” says Melati, 18, who worked in an Indonesian prawn factory. “I used three pads [stacked on top of each other] which I put in place at the dorm before going to the factory. Then at work I took them off one by one at the toilet. It was uncomfortable, especially if I had to walk.” As well as causing discomfort and leaving embarrassing stains, keeping a dirty pad in place can lead to infections.
3. Women shoulder the bulk of unpaid care work
For many women working to produce our food, the working day doesn’t start or end in the field or factory. They also have care responsibilities, like looking after children or elderly relatives, cooking, cleaning and collecting water.
In South-east Asian prawn supply chains, it’s estimated that 70% of care work is done by women. This results in very long working days, and often limits the choices women have when looking for employment. Sharing care work more equally and providing services like childcare are crucial when working towards gender equality.
4. Women struggle to be heard
From senior leadership in the workplace to trade unions and worker committees, women often find that their voices are not adequately represented.
An Oxfam report found that women workers in Morocco’s strawberry sector did not feel represented by predominantly male–dominated trade unions. A couple of years later, awareness of their rights had increased thanks to an Oxfam project to improve wages and working conditions, but they still spoke of a lack of representation and difficulty raising concerns with supervisors.
5. Improving things for women benefits everyone
When women have decent jobs with a fair wage, and experience progress such as access to education, things get better not just for them but for their families and communities as well.
For example, giving women control of a family’s money can help to overcome poverty and improve children’s health and school attendance.
6. Supermarkets do too little to end the exploitation of women workers
The growth and business model of supermarkets often drives down prices, encouraging suppliers to cut corners that impact people’s lives.
For instance, changing orders at short notice has a huge impact on the people who produce our food. As women are often in the least secure jobs, this can result in them unexpectedly being out of work and out of pocket.
Three of the six supermarkets assessed in Oxfam’s UK Supermarkets Scorecard scored no points at all in the women’s section, demonstrating that the condition of women workers in their supply chain is a real blind spot for many supermarkets.
7. Supermarkets can take action that would make a difference
As gatekeepers to the supply chains of the food we buy, supermarkets can do more to ensure women have the same opportunities as men in the workplace and are treated fairly and with dignity.
Asda’s parent company Wal-Mart is notable for its commitment to increase its sourcing from women-owned businesses.
Supermarkets could also take meaningful steps by ensuring that the women who produce our food have a safe place to work, equal access to jobs, and help with issues like childcare.
YOU can help
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could shop in your local supermarket safe in the knowledge that the women who produced any of the items you bought had been treated with respect?
You can call on your supermarket to make this a reality.
Take action to support the women who produce our food.