Politics of Poverty

What do Amazon and Whole Foods’ new supplier standards mean for workers?

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Workers picking chili peppers on a North Carolina farm in August 2019. Photo: Lianne Milton/Panos for Oxfam

Our key takeaways on what the companies get right and how to improve

Over the past two years, Oxfam has uncovered evidence of human rights abuses in the Whole Foods supply chain around the world—from Thailand to North Carolina. We’ve heard stories of terrible working conditions, poor wages, gender discrimination, and intimidation. In August, Arturo, one of the workers we spoke to in North Carolina told us, “I’m concerned about dying in the field because of heat or getting injured.”

Arturo’s experience is the harsh reality many food workers face. Whole Foods has ranked at, or close to, the bottom of our Supermarket Scorecard two years in a row. However, things are starting to shift. In September Amazon released supplier standards that apply to all of its subsidiaries, including Whole Foods.

Whole Foods also announced to Oxfam that it will identify a senior level executive to oversee human rights and labor standards by January, a commitment we will monitor closely.

Amazon has also released a supplier manual and other sustainability commitments, but these only apply to Amazon’s private labels and not Whole Foods. The manual offers guidance to suppliers about worker access to remedy, supply chain transparency, and documentation of working conditions, but falls short of calling for human rights due diligence, which is an essential pillar to any supplier guidance. The sustainability commitments highlight some critical areas of impact that Oxfam has raised in the Behind the Barcodes campaign, specifically around fair wages, decent work, women’s empowerment, and engaging with stakeholders.  We hope this is a sign of more progress to come.

First, the good stuff

Putting human rights at the center

Amazon and Whole Foods’ new standards recognize the importance of human rights, respecting the environment, and promoting dignity for workers. We see this as a good first step following two years of advocacy to Whole Foods, and more recently, to Amazon.

A focus on workers

The former standards already included a section on labor rights. The standards state: “Amazon suppliers must not use forced labor… Amazon does not tolerate suppliers that traffic worker or in any other way exploit workers by means of threat, force, coercion, abduction, or fraud.” And the standards are clear that “workers must not be required to pay recruitment […] fees.” The new standards provide strengthened language on wages, additional gender protections, migrant workers, and the environment.

These new commitments represent significant progress. We are encouraged to see a recognition in the standards that migrant and female workers face particular discrimination and an affirmation that workers have a right to join a union.

Areas for improvement

Human rights must be embedded

The standards do not hold companies responsible for respecting human rights, nor do they require suppliers to do the same. They also do not require that Whole Foods assess and disclose the human rights risks in its supply chain. Finally, there is no plan to conduct and publish human rights due diligence in high risk areas. Oxfam strongly advocates for companies to conduct and publish human rights impact assessments (HRIAs), which are more robust than an audit and done in collaboration with the involvement of workers, communities, and civil society groups (e.g. women’s rights organizations). HRIAs are designed to identify the root causes of human rights abuses linked to a business and recommendations on how to address them. We can appreciate the rationale and need for audits but oftentimes they are insufficient and lack transparency.

Whole Foods, in relation to these supplier standards, is taking an important step to acknowledge human rights are relevant to core business practice, but now they need to demonstrate responsibility, transparency, and accountability.

Be proactive about gender equality

We recognize the additional gender protections in the standards (e.g. maternity leave and benefits) but there is still a gender gap. Whole Foods and many other supermarkets scored zero on our scorecard with respect to women’s empowerment. Whole Foods should adopt a comprehensive policy on gender and sign onto the UN’s Women’s Empowerment Principles and engage with women’s rights organizations—a move that would signify a real commitment to women. Companies like Whole Foods are in a position to lead on this issue so women workers and farmers have access to decent jobs with fair wages and contracts that work for them.

Don’t “cut and run”

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that companies should assess the consequences of “cutting and running” on vulnerable farmers, workers, and the communities in the supply chains. In many instances, terminating relationships will lead to further harm.

Instead, companies should partner with their suppliers to improve and implement corporate-level commitments on human rights due diligence and an action plan to systemically address concerns across their food supply chains. The Amazon supplier manual has good guidance, but this should be a policy for its entire supply chain, including all subsidiaries.

Make worker representation a priority

Oxfam has a set of Worker Rights Recommendations with clear steps that supermarkets can take on human rights.

As a start:

  • The standards should require suppliers to engage with trade unions and labor rights organizations. These groups are trusted allies who can help companies better understand and manage grievances.
  • Suppliers should also pay a living wage to workers and producers. Even if wages meet the legal minimum it is not a guarantee that workers aren’t living in poverty. The standards state that workers should be paid enough to meet basic needs and the needs of their family, but that is not yet a living wage guarantee.

Change is possible

These standards are an important sign of progress, but Whole Foods can do more, including engaging with stakeholders to ensure that policies are grounded in the reality of what workers, communities, women, and farmers need to thrive. We are ready to work with Whole Foods, Amazon, or any supermarket to get there.

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