It’s bad enough that those in poverty are expected to settle for scraps from the rich man’s table, but how dare supermarkets also masquerade as their saviours? By donating old products they can’t sell to food banks and community shops, they pose as philanthropic concerns and position their businesses as a solution to food poverty, when actually, in very many ways, they create it.
“Victims of turf wars don’t seem to count as consumers”
Supermarkets spout a fountain of rhetoric about how they keep down the price of food in the name of “the consumer”. This cheap food gospel has given them carte blanche to pay ever less to their suppliers in the name of the said “consumer”. In the “cheap food” exercise, they impoverish farmers, growers, and put out of business small to medium-sized concerns that can’t agree to their robber baron demands. Thousands of dairy farms, for instance, have gone to the wall as a direct consequence of retailers’ price cuts. But such victims of supermarket turf wars don’t seem to count as “consumers” when they are going under.
‘New supermarket brings 90 jobs to our town’ reads the cheery headline in the local paper, but who is quantifying all the job losses such stores create among independent traders? Aren’t they “consumers” either? I’ll lay a bet my traditional Q Guild family butcher employs more staff, and on higher wages, than the nearby Lidl or Tesco Express.
Fat cat CEOs apart, supermarkets employ most of their workforce for just a few pennies over the minimum wage. Food poverty expert Jack Monroe recalls, from 2012, “the mum in the Asda uniform, queuing at the food bank … because she didn’t earn enough to pay her bills … or the Tesco cleaner, a few places behind.”
Last year, researchers at the University of Cambridge reported how ‘flexible’ employment practices (extreme part-time contracts, key-time contracts and “at will” zero-hours contracts) are causing untold stress and financial insecurity to supermarket employees and their families.
Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos party, says Europe’s threefold problems are inequality, unemployment, and debt. Supermarkets address none of these.
Joanna Blythman is a journalist. Her new book, Swallow This, is published on 26 February