Sun, Oct 03, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Probe reveals human cost of supermarket price wars

PAYING THE PRICE:The plantation workers in developing nations endure injury, chemicals, low wages and repression of unions so the British consumer can pay less for produce

The Guardian, LONDON

UK supermarket price wars are wrecking lives in the developing world, according to a campaign launched yesterday by Consumers International (CI).

Recent cuts in the price of pineapples on the British high street have inflicted unacceptable damage on those living and working on plantations in Costa Rica, the consumer group says.

An investigation by Guardian Films, with funding from CI, has found a catalog of environmental and social damage caused by intensive tropical fruit production in Costa Rica, from which most of the pineapples sold in the UK come.

The findings include evidence that:

‧ The use of agrochemicals has led to contamination of drinking water supplies in communities around the plantations. One group of villages, bordering plantations that either supply or are owned by Del Monte, has been forced to collect water from tankers for more than three years.

‧ Repeated chemical accidents have inflicted serious damage on the local environment. In June, a fire at a chemical dump used by the multinational trader Dole caused a toxic cocktail to spill into the nearby river. Fish and other -wildlife including crocodiles were killed along kilometers of waterways. The pesticide involved is sprayed by Dole on its bananas. Dole said it was co-operating with authorities investigating the accident.

‧ Workers reported suffering serious health problems from exposure to the chemicals used on pineapple plantations, including in some cases accidental chemical poisoning on Del Monte and Grupo Acon farms. Grupo Acon supplies the UK supermarket giants Tesco and Asda, Dole and Fyffes.

‧ Price cuts in European supermarkets have led to wages being drastically cut by Grupo Acon, workers said.

‧ Efforts to join independent trade unions are said to have been met with repression and mass firings on Del Monte and Grupo Acon plantations.

CI, which acts as an umbrella group for independent consumer organizations across Europe, says its own research has shown that conditions in Costa Rica’s tropical fruit industry are unacceptable. It accuses supermarkets of complicity despite their public commitments to source food responsibly.

“Their positive intentions are being undermined by retail price cuts and aggressive procurement practices that lead to cuts in wages and insufficient resources to improve working practices,” CI program co-ordinator Catherine Nicholson said. “Consumers want low prices, but not at the cost of fair living conditions for producers.”

Del Monte, which exports 50 percent of Costa Rica’s pineapples, said it had strict controls on chemicals to minimize accidents. It said that the government was monitoring the drinking water situation. It also said that all its workers were free to join unions. Grupo Acon did not respond to the allegations in the Guardian film, but later said it had strict protocols to deal with accidents. Dole declined to comment on conditions at its supplier. Fyffes, supplier to Asda of some Grupo Acon fruit, said it had checked in audits and was satisfied that all its suppliers had an open attitude to unions and did not discriminate against union members.

Asda said it had reiterated to suppliers the high ethical standards it expected of them.

Tesco said it was already actively engaged in improving standards: “After two years working with suppliers in Costa Rica, we have brokered agreement to invite independent labor experts to review labor practices and identify ways to strengthen them. That project is underway and is examining issues including pay, labor relations, seasonal labor and health and safety.”

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