MisFortune 500
a project of
Women's Environment & Development Organization
16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence
25 November - 10 December 2007
Day 2
South African agricultural workers take on Tesco: poverty wages and dismal working conditions in supermarket supply chain

Tesco (UK), a retail and supermarket chain, is the world's fourth largest retailer in the world, behind Wal-Mart (US), Carrefour (France) and the Home Depot (US). According to ActionAid UK, Tesco profits 228,000 an hour, while the wages of farm workers in its supply chain is 38p an hour.

In June, South African fruit picker Gertruida Baartman confronted Tesco bosses about the poverty pay and terrible conditions on many of the farms supplying their stores.

Last year, holding her one share supplied by anti-poverty agency ActionAid
, she spoke out in the packed annual general meeting. To a standing ovation she said that despite being afraid for her job on a Tesco-supplying farm, she was determined to campaign on behalf of the millions of women workers world-wide who toil to pick and pack the fruit that UK consumers buy.Gertruida Baartman

Tesco chairman David Reid promised Gertruida that she would not be targeted for her courage and that Tesco would look into its social and environmental auditing procedures in South Africa.

Since then Gertruida has been fired. Only the intervention of the South African women's group Women on Farms and the farm worker's trade union Sikhula Sonke (Growing Together) ensured that she got her job back. She continues to be targeted in her personal life.

Gertruida said: "It would take me four hours to earn enough money to buy a bag of Tesco pears that sell in the UK for 1.39. And I am not alone. Across the world many thousands of women and men work in similar conditions to me for breadline wages.

"Change only comes by speaking out against injustice."

Jenny Ricks, ActionAid campaigner said: "Tesco's drive for low prices has caused low wages, insecure employment and dangerous working conditions for thousands of women workers like Gertruida in its supply chains overseas."

Like many thousands of women in South Africa Gertruida, 38, is employed as a part time labourer picking and packing fruit for export. She has to feed her three children, parents, nieces and disabled brother on a wage of 38 pence an hour.

"I am taking a risk to speak out here today. I could lose my job and my home," she said. "I know Tesco has been told before about the problems workers experience on farms, and they have said it's not true. But I am standing before you to tell you I don't get paid enough to feed my children and work with my bare hands in fields full of pesticides. I don't get the same wages as the men, even though we do the same work. So nobody can tell me this is fair."

ActionAid brought Gertruida to the meeting in a bid to highlight the poor pay and conditions that thousands of African farm workers suffer. She was accompanied by Fatima Shabodien of Women on Farms and Wendy Pekeur of Sikhula Sonke.

She said that many were afraid to speak out, fearing they would loose their jobs.  

"I don't want Tesco to leave South Africa and I don't want people in the UK to boycott the supermarket. I just want the company to be fairer."

Wendy Pekeur of Sikhula Sonke, who accompanied Gertruida to the UK, said: "We just need to persuade Tesco to respect the laws of our country. They have the power to insist on farmers giving living wages and proper housing and to pay benefits and pensions."

ActionAid contends the situation on South African fruit farms shows that supermarkets cannot be relied upon to voluntarily clean up their act. It is time for the UK government to rein in their power and force them by regulation to stop exploiting the world's poor through the appointment of a retail regulator - or supermarket 'Tsar' - to make the supermarkets play fair overseas.

Whilst Tesco has made some progress in addressing problems with its suppliers in South Africa, Women on Farms and Sikhulu Sonke say improvements have been slow and are calling on Tesco to:

  • Acknowledge that problems over workers' conditions exist and commit to dealing with them.
  • Commit to a transparent and inclusive farm auditing process, including workers and their representatives.
Excerpted from Short Changed (ActionAid) and Gertruida is back: South African fruit picker takes on might of Tesco (Reuters)
Quick Links...
Contact Information
ActionAid UK: tradeandcorporates@actionaid.org
Women on Farms: fatima@wfp.org.za
Sikhula Sonke: wendy@wfp.org.za
MisFortune 500: info@misfortune.org
16 Days Campaign

The annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign helps raise awareness about gender violence and its effects on women globally. During the 2007 campaign, MisFortune 500 will feature some of the leading stories of 2007 year that demonstrate what women continue to be up against and ways they are resisting violence and working for change.