Major European Supermarket shareholders cash in during Covid-19 pandemic while supply chain workers suffer

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supermarkets became the pandemic’s winners while workers are losing out

supermarkets became the pandemic’s winners while workers are losing out

COVID-19 has sharpened existing inequalities in global food chains and pushed many food workers and farmers in the Global South into greater poverty and acute uncertainty. Worldwide, during lockdowns, and when most other shops were closed, the role supermarkets play in our daily lives was suddenly thrown into sharp focus. Supermarkets and their workers played a central role in allowing us to buy food in a safe way, which was appreciated by many. As a result, the food retail sector has largely benefited from unprecedented sales growth during the crisis.19 While many other sectors are experiencing significant losses in one of the worst economic recessions since World War II,20 leading global supermarkets have made record sales and most – except for UK supermarkets – earned additional operating profits during the crisis.

Major European supermarkets have upped their dividend payouts to shareholders by an average of 123 percent –from about $10 billion to $22.3 billion– during the first eight months of the pandemic as they stayed open as essential business. Shockingly, hardly any of these supermarkets paid any substantial COVID-19-related support to the workers and farmers who throughout the crisis kept supply chains going. 

The new report published by Oxfam also reveals the continuation of exploitation of women in the supermarkets’ supply chains. 

The workers and farmers interviewed by Oxfam did not earn a living income or wage, while some didn’t even earn a monthly minimum wage. As an example, the report tells the story of Felipe, who was rescued from slavery-like working conditions on a coffee farm last year during the pandemic. He, along with a co-worker, had to harvest around 2,5 tonnes of coffee daily without receiving a salary.

At best he would receive $36 for two weeks’ work after his boss had deducted the rent, food and work equipment. Oxfam’s research shows that coffee harvested in slave-like conditions by people like Felipe end up on the shelves of European supermarkets. The report also shows that less than 1 percent of shareholder pay-outs in 2020 could close the gap between current wages and a living wage for workers in Brazil’s largest coffee-producing state. 

Ninety eight percent of net profits of eight publicly-listed supermarkets in Europe and in the U.S. — including the Netherlands’ Ahold Delhaize, Britain’s Tesco and America’s Walmart —  were distributed to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks, Oxfam’s analysis showed. The food retailers upped their dividend payouts to shareholders by an average of 123 percent – from about $10 billion to $22.3 billion – during the first eight months of the pandemic, the report added.

Oxfam said that the market capitalization of the listed supermarkets analyzed increased by $101 billion, while they spent about $11.3 billion on COVID-19 protection measures.

The analysis showed that Ahold Delhaize distributed dividends worth $1.1 billion in 2020 compared with $928 million in 2019, while the U.K.’s Sainsbury’s paid out $508 million versus $93 million, and Tesco $7.3 billion compared with $1.1 billion.

Oxfam said U.S. retailers and Ahold Delhaize collectively gained $41.2 billion in extra revenues in the second to fourth quarters of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, while spending $9.2 billion on COVID-19-related costs.

As consumers we were all so grateful for the life-line that supermarkets provided us through their brave front-line staff and overseas suppliers. But in their boardrooms, the bosses have continued business as usual, putting the interests of wealthy shareholders, owners and directors ahead of their workers and suppliers.

GABRIELA BUCHEROXFAM INTERNATIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Women are continually in the lowest paid, lowest skilled jobs, despite, for instance in Brazil’s coffee production, being better educated than the men. The report details how men’s real average income on coffee farms was 16.2% higher than that of women as women get paid less than men for the same jobs, and face a lack of access to the higher-paid jobs. 

Julia coffee worker from Brazil
Photo: Tatiana Cardeal/Oxfam

During the pandemic, the listed supermarkets analysed by Oxfam distributed nearly all (an average of 98 percent) of their net profits to their owners and shareholders. They spent around $11.3bn in COVID-19-related protection measures. Privately owned supermarkets in Germany and the Netherlands also profited from extra sales over this period, but, for most of them, their lack of financial reporting does not show who benefitted. The market capitalization of the listed supermarkets increased by $101bn.  

Oxfam International Executive Director, Gabriela Bucher, said: “As consumers we were all so grateful for the life-line that supermarkets provided us through their brave front-line staff and overseas suppliers. But in their boardrooms, the bosses have continued business as usual, putting the interests of wealthy shareholders, owners and directors ahead of their workers and suppliers.” 

The report highlights why the EU needs to bring in effective European laws to make big corporations, like supermarkets, accountable for human rights or environmental violations in their supply chains. While the European Commission has announced its intention to propose a law that would tackle this type of pervasive exploitation of workers, it has delayed the date of the proposal following pressure from a limited section of the private sector and Nordic governments.  

Oxfam EU Economic Justice Policy Lead, Marc-Olivier Herman, said: “This report shows why we need a strong European law on sustainable corporate governance, sooner rather than later. Big business cannot keep on getting off scot-free for failing to take action to respect the rights of those who make the goods that end up in our trolleys. The European Commission must not bow to pressure from corporate lobbyists and some European governments, but instead must make robust rules that protect the people behind the barcodes.”  

The report found no evidence that supermarkets provide adequate support to alleviate the health impacts or loss of income suffered by workers and producers in their supply chains as a result of COVID-19. Only the UK’s Tesco and Germany’s Rewe had published a gender policy and the actions they will take to improve the position of women in their supply chains. 

Oxfam International Executive Director, Gabriela Bucher, said: “The fact is that women workers in the supermarkets’ global supply chains continue to be faced with poverty, exploitation and discrimination. Supermarkets turn a blind eye to the problem and focus more on paying dividends than on the negative impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. Supermarkets have squandered an opportunity to help improve the lives of vulnerable workers and transform to a more sustainable business model.”  

Chesa*, a 32-year-old migrant female fish filleter in Thailand, told Oxfam and partners that during the second COVID-19’s surge she could not afford her accommodation as her income halved and she had to share accommodation with seven other people. “We fear the pandemic. We fear that once we catch it people will loath us,” she said. 

Tae Ma Thui migrant worker in Thai shrimp industry
Nu, migrant worker in Thai shrimp industry. Photo: Patipat Janthong/ Oxfam

Oxfam and partners sent a letter to the European Commission in reaction to the delay of the proposal for EU legislation on Sustainable Corporate Governance. The letter, addressed to European Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans, and Commissioner Didier Reynders, urged the European Commission to keep to its commitment to reform the role of company directors to make big companies more accountable for human rights and environmental abuses in their supply chains, and more sustainable. 

The European Commission announced last year that it would table a proposal obliging companies to take measures to prevent human rights and environmental harm in their supply chains. The European Parliament voted on a blueprint for this proposal in March. This vote communicates the European Parliament’s position on mandatory human rights due diligence legislation due to be tabled by the European Commission in the Autumn. Read Oxfam’s reaction to the vote here

A living wage is defined as the wage ‘received for a standard workweek by a worker in a particular place sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family’. A living wage gap is the difference between actual wages and living wages 

Leaders from the business and investor sector have publicly supported the EU Sustainable Corporate Governance initiative earlier this year, backed by over 90 company law experts and academics. 

Oxfam reviewed listed food retailers Ahold Delhaize from the Netherlands; Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco from the UK; Albertsons Companies, Costco, Kroger and Walmart from the US; and non-listed food retailers from Germany –Aldi North, Aldi South, Lidl, Edeka and Rewe– and the Netherlands, Jumbo and PLUS. 

Oxfam’s 2020 Supermarket Scorecard, which was released in June 2020, shows that a number of supermarkets – Aldi South, Lidl, Jumbo, Morrisons, Rewe, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – have improved their performance by increasing their score by more than 20 percent since the start of the Behind the Barcodes campaign in 2018. This reflects the additional steps these companies are taking, but the pace of progress remains far too slow. 

Oxfam’s research shows that, through complex supply chains, some of the coffee farms whose owners are on the Dirty List (In 2003, the Brazilian government introduced the ‘Dirty List’ as a way to combat modern slavery) are connected to supermarket supply chains. The following supermarkets confirmed that they source or have sourced, directly or indirectly, products from one or more of the exporters who are currently (or were in the recent past) involved with farms that are included on the Dirty List and studied in Oxfam’s research (Ahold Delhaize, Aldi Nord, Aldi Sud, Asda, Jumbo, Kroger, Lidl, Plus and REWE Group).  

The report details the increase in wealth of supermarket stakeholders on page 12: 

  • The wealth of the Walton family that owns Walmart alone grew by $3m an hour last year. Costco declared a special dividend of $4.4bn to reward its shareholders, citing a ‘strong balance sheet.’ This significantly increased Costco’s dividend payment from $1bn in 2019 to over $6bn in 2020. 
     
  • Aldi South is owned by the heirs of Karl Albrecht – Beate Heister and Karl Albrecht Jr. Their combined wealth increased from $21.6bn in April 2020 to nearly $30bn in January 2021. 
     
  • Dieter Schwarz owns Schwarz Group, Europe’s largest food retailer. The German-based corporate group owns more than 12,500 Lidl and Kaufland stores, representing revenue of $135.4bn. Recent data shows that Schwarz Group’s wealth grew by 30% in less than a year.
     
  • The owners of Dutch supermarket chain Jumbo, the Van Eerd family, are expanding their business empire through the acquisition of 50% of Dutch department store Hema through Mississippi Ventures, the family’s investment vehicle. This has been made possible by raising the family’s dividends over recent years. In 2020, the family received $62.7m in dividends 


Oxfam conducted new research into the conditions of workers in key global production sites of coffee in Brazil, basmati rice in Pakistan and wine in South Africa. At the same time earlier research on Assam tea production in India and seafood production in Thailand was updated. Specific links were found to supermarket supply chains for coffee and seafood. 

For example, Oxfam’s research shows that although Assam tea workers in India earn the minimum wage, this is only a meagre $2.30a day. Based on its estimation of a living wage, Oxfam established a staggering living wage gap of 81%. The fact that 90% of tea workers rely on the government’s subsidized food programme says it all: even with a job, families cannot cope. 

The women in Oxfam’s study were better educated in Brazil; Oxfam found that 14% of the women workers had attended (but not always completed) higher education, compared to just 4% of the men. 

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