Cape Crusader: A Fruit Picker From South Africa Reveals The Human Cost of Cheap Food
When Tesco meets on Thursday for its AGM, it will need to answer some tough questions about how it treats people in poor countries. Already, one shareholder has gathered enough support to force a motion calling for the company to open up its supply chains around the world to proper scrutiny.
A second shareholder will be telling the AGM why such scrutiny is desperately needed. Gertruida Baartman, a fruit picker from South Africa's Western Cape, has made the long journey to London for a second year in a row to ask Tesco's bosses why she works in appalling conditions for low wages. At last year's AGM, they promised her, on record, to look into conditions on their South African supplier farms. She will tell them that things are just as bad today as they were a year ago.
I have visited these farms myself, and was frankly shocked at what I saw these women go through.
One of the farms I saw that supplies fruit to Tesco is supposed to be one of the better places to work. We arrived at the shed where 80 women prepare bunches of grapes for export. The women I met work in the shed from 7am to 6pm, with half an hour's break in the morning, two 15-minute breaks and an hour for lunch. Women fruit pickers in South Africa can earn as little as 38 pence an hour.
There was nowhere to sit - neither in the sheds where they stand all day, nor outside where a dusty patch of ground with a corrugated iron lean-to provided the only protection from the sun and rain. There was one working toilet; the other one has been out of order for ages.
Portia Ngxitho works hard here and then moves onto another farm when this labor is over. She only wants to earn enough to feed her children, but the wages are not sufficient.
Jasmine Johannes gives her mother half her money. "I wish I had something to show for ten years work at this farm," she told me.
Marta is a single mother who can only afford to live in someone else's back yard. She's been working on the farm for 12 years but has never been offered any kind of security or protection.
Since the advent of democracy in South Africa, laws have been put in place that should protect these workers; but the reality on the ground belies the legislation. Supermarkets have to take some of the responsibility for this. It is their low-price, unreliable orders and stringent demands from supermarkets that lead to casual labor - keeping people permanently below the bread line.
Ex farm-worker Wendy Pekeur, secretary general of the union Sikhula Sonke now represents many women farm workers. I asked her what she wanted me to tell British consumers.
"Listen, we want poorer kids in Britain to be able to eat nutritious South African apples. There's no request for boycotts and no need to punish consumers, or farmers, or workers. We just need to persuade Tesco and other firms to respect the laws of our country. Goodness knows, they make enough demands about the sizes and shapes of the fruit and vegetables we produce. They have the power to provide minimum wages, not to expose workers to pesticides, to provide proper housing and to pay proper benefits and pensions."
All supermarkets, not just Tesco, want to offer food and clothes as cheaply as possible to their customers. There's nothing wrong with that, but the "pile them high and sell them cheap" strategy has an often tragic human cost. At Tesco's AGM, shareholders will have a chance to meet someone who is paying a high price for her contribution to the company's huge success.
When Gertruida told her story at last year's AGM, many shareholders gave her a standing ovation. This year, they need to vote to do something about it.
We hope shareholders will vote for change for millions of women like Gertruida. But whatever happens, the real challenge now is to look to our government to step in and make a real difference in the lives of millions, by curbing supermarkets' worst excesses overseas. No one doubts Gordon Brown's commitment to fighting poverty. Making our own supermarkets play fair by poor people would be a great place to start.
Emma Thompson is an actor and writer.
© 2007 The Guardian