From Zero to Heroine: 4 ways supermarkets can better support women

In my previous blog, I highlighted some of the key issues faced by women workers in the seafood sector in Southeast Asia. Gender inequality can be hidden deep inside many of the world’s leading supply chains. Women are being paid poverty-level wages and enduring unsafe and degrading working conditions while struggling to put food on the table for their families.

Oxfam’s global campaign asks the world’s most powerful supermarkets to do more to end human suffering in the food we buy. Oxfam’s supermarkets scorecard reveals that twelve out of the sixteen assessed supermarkets scored ‘zero’ for their gender policy. Even supermarkets that consumers trust for their ethical sourcing, like Whole Foods, are amongst those who failed to score on Oxfam’s gender indicators.

Raise gender issues

A recent global survey published in July 2018 by the International Organization for Women in the Seafood Industry (WSI) validated several key issues faced by women workers in the industry. The survey documented gender-based discrimination for women in the sector – ranging from unfavorable working conditions, to discrimination and unequal opportunities for women. Globally, the survey found that 58% of respondents said that gender issues are not talked about in their organization.

This lack of gender awareness means that senior executives, who are typically men, often neglect to think about additional challenges faced by women when making strategic decisions. This highlights the need to start a discussion and to build awareness to change the ‘Tone at the Top’ on important gender issues.

Moreover, we need to distinguish between progressive companies, who follow through with their commitments, and those who are merely paying lip service.

Activists demonstrate outside a Whole Foods in Boston as part of the launch of Oxfam's Behind the Barcodes campaign. Credit: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Oxfam staff members stand up for the rights of seafood workers outside a Whole Foods in Boston on June 21, 2018. Credit: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

So, how can supermarkets be gender-just?

1. Respect human rights

First, supermarkets need to make commitments to respect human rights and enable women’s economic empowerment in their global supply chains. There are several effective ways to do this:

  • Sign up to the UN Women’s Economic Empowerment Principles which set out a framework for women’s empowerment in the workplace, community and society. The principles promote and commit companies to putting gender equality as a strategic priority of business. Signatories commit to fair treatment of men and women at work and commit to respecting human rights. The Principles also commit companies to periodically report their progress on advancing gender equality.
  • Supermarkets’ senior executives need to publicly state their commitments to gender equality beyond their corporate office and expand these commitments throughout their global sourcing. Recently, CEOs are being more vocal about public policy issues, and they should prioritize gender inequality as it is the root cause of countless social injustices in our society today.

2. Improve gender data and reporting

Second, supermarkets need to improve their data collection, monitoring and reporting on gender issues that go beyond social audits. Companies should ensure supply chain mapping and social audits collect gender information – one important data is gender-aggregated wage information between male/female workers in their supply chains. This will allow the  company to demonstrate that they are serious about closing the gender wage gap and have credible evidence to monitor progress.

3. Promote women's organizing

Third, supermarkets should actively commit to and promote women’s ability to organize themselves. In many countries, joining unions and worker organizing is still illegal and discouraged. An ETI/ILO survey has shown that where supply chain workers organize in trade unions, they can dramatically boost their wages and cut working hours.

Women workers should be encouraged to participate and engage in leadership positions in unions. If the country’s labor laws are not conducive to worker organizing, supermarkets should actively leverage their influence to engage with national governments to improve regulations that will systematically benefit workers in their global supply chains.

4. Collaborate

Finally, collaboration is a critical success factor. Supermarkets alone cannot eliminate gender injustice but should work with others to make further progress. Several levels of collaboration are needed:

  • Collaborate with workers’ organizations in order to learn more about workers’ experiences;
  • Collaborate with women’s organizations to sharpen the focus on women’s issues;
  • Collaborate with national governments, at different levels, to influence public policy changes;
  • Collaborate with gender-just organizations, companies, NGOs and credible Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives which champion women’s empowerment and work towards the same goal.

Oxfam staff members stand up for the rights of seafood workers outside a Whole Foods in Boston on June 21, 2018. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Oxfam staff members stand up for the rights of seafood workers outside Whole Foods, in Boston, USA. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

A vision of equality

Gender equality should be prioritized in supermarkets’ corporate vision and strategy, instead of being an afterthought. Gender injustice affects families, communities and both women and men.

Companies need to urgently step up their commitment to become more gender-just. There are certainly a number of small wins which could have a big impact, and there are long-term strategic benefits for all involved in our food systems.

There is a strong and compelling case for supermarkets to become gender-just and better support women. Now is the time to step up and make it happen.

Human suffering should never be an ingredient in the food we buy. You can help. Sign the pledge.

The entry posted by Art Prapha, Senior Advisor, Oxfam America, on 14 August 2018.

Top photo: The Lamongan auction site, the biggest shrimp auction in East Java, Indonesia. Credit: Adrian Mulya/Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia

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