Any of our business? Human Rights and the UK private sector - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Unite the Union

  Unite the Union welcomes the Inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights into Business and Human rights. Our experience is that the ways in which businesses work impacts on human rights both positively and negatively. If there is the good, then undoubtedly there is the bad. We have longstanding experience in this field. For example, the Transport and General Workers Union was a founder member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and our Deputy General Secretary, Jack Dromey, addressed its 10th Anniversary Conference in November of last year. Through the ETI and working with others, we have taken numerous initiatives both domestically and in the international arena to persuade businesses to use their power positively and not to abuse their power, driving down costs along their supply chain and not abiding by the stated aims of the ETI Base Code. Our experience ranges from Britain to Bangladesh.

  As part of this Inquiry, the Union would like to draw the Committee's attention to the biggest supermarket in Britain, Tesco PLC. Tesco is a successful and highly profitable retailer and we make no criticism of their employment practices in their stores here in Britain. Having said that, despite the fact that Tesco is a member of the ETI and subscribes to the ETI Base Code, their procurement practices frequently impact negatively on the human rights of workers in their supply chain here in Britain and internationally. There is a particular problem in the Meat Industry in Britain and Ireland.

  Unite the Union is the largest union in the Food Industry and we have a wealth of experience of the business practices of Tesco. As part of out campaign "Every Worker Counts", Unite the Union has exposed the treatment of workers employed by companies in the British and Irish Meat Industry supplying Tesco stores. Tesco has abused its 30% UK grocery market share to drive down costs, creating a systemic pattern of structural discrimination by way of a two-tier workforce. More and more agency workers, overwhelmingly migrant, have been employed on poorer pay and conditions. The newly arrived are, therefore, exploited and indigenous workers undercut. Some of the evidence of employment patterns in the Tesco supply chain is truly shocking. That includes a significient casualisation of work, with many workers not knowing from one day to the next if they have work and with some being punished for not using agency housing or transport by the withdrawal of regular work.

  Over two years ago, Tesco and Unite worked together under the auspices of the ETI, commissioning an independent study by Ergon, which confirmed that there was a systemic pattern of structural discrimination. Yet Tesco failed to act and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has now launched an Inquiry. The evidence is clear and that is that that pattern of structural discrimination causes division in the workplace and damages social cohesion.

  Unite the Union has asked Tesco to use its influence with its suppliers to establish minimum standards guaranteeing the same treatment of those who do the same job, agency worker and the directly employed. Another leading supermarket is now moving down that path, establishing Ethical Model Factories. Tesco has declined so to do despite the fact that the necessary readjustment of their supply chain would be cost neutral. That readjustment would, however, make a dramatic difference to the everyday lives and human rights of the people who work in the Tesco meat supply chain.

  Working with other unions and NGOs, we have discovered that the problems faced by UK workers in the supply chain are not isolated to this country but witnessed elsewhere around the world:

    — In Thailand, there are concerns regarding the rights and welfare of workers in the country's meat suppliers that supply Tesco. The International Union of Foodworkers has discovered disturbing evidence regarding working conditions and compliance with Health and Safety Regulations.

    — The Clean Clothes Campaign in its recent report Cashing In highlighted the fact that workers in Sri Lanka sewing clothes for Tesco regularly work more than 64 hours per week for less than £40 a month. The women workers say that, if you try to form a union, you will lose your job. In one Sri Lankan supplier, more than half the workers were employed on a casual basis, increasing job insecurity.

    — War on Want and trade unions in Kenya and Colombia report of abuses of workers in the Flower Industry that supply Tesco with cut flowers. The complaints are all too familiar:

    —  low pay;

    —  temporary contracts;

    —  intimidation of workers that want to join a trade union; and

    —  poor health and safety practices.

  It should be stressed that we have sometimes been able to work with Tesco to take progressive initiatives, ranging from the successful campaign to take the Gangmasters Licensing Bill through Parliament, establishing the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, to tackling abuse in the company employing thousands of migrant strawberry pickers here in Britain, S&A Foods. Having said that, knowing what the evidence is, Tesco has continued with practices that impact negatively on vulnerable workers in the Meat Industry here in Britain and overseas. The Tesco rhetoric of "Every little helps" is far removed from the reality experienced by workers in the Tesco supply chain and we hope that the Joint Committee on Human Rights will be able to call Tesco to account so that they use their enormous market power to promote human rights and ethical standards. As part of your Inquiry, Unite the Union would be pleased to give oral evidence.

May 2009

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