Albert Heijn, Jumbo and Lidl commit support to women’s rights

By Ioan Nemes, Private Sector Lead at Oxfam Novib

Photo by RF._.studio from Pexels

A quiet revolution has been taking place in the Dutch retail world during the past three weeks. We are now in the third year of Oxfam’s Behind the Barcode’s campaign, and within the space of less than three weeks from the launch of Oxfam Novib’s Not in This Together report on 22 July 2021, the three largest Dutch retailers Albert Heijn, Jumbo and Lidl Netherlands each published unprecedented commitments to support women workers and farmers in their supply chains. Through these commitments, the three supermarkets, representing more than two thirds of the Dutch market, show they listen to the voices of thousands of Oxfam Novib supporters. These voices created enormous pressure on the supermarkets during the past weeks to take responsibility for the dire situation of the women workers and farmers who produce our food. In this blog we take a moment to unpack the scope, significance and limitations of the commitments made by the three supermarkets.

Significant commitments

It is most noteworthy that the three retailers explicitly recognize the responsibility they have to ensure the women in their supply chains are not subjected to exploitation, harassment, or discrimination. This is a fundamental shift in approach, which implies that the age of retailers’ sole reliance on social audits and certifications as a way to ‘sort things out’ in their supply chains is definitively behind us.

Another remarkable feature of the three statements is that they explicitly recognize the specific challenges that disproportionately impact women in agricultural supply chains, with a commitment to tackle the root causes of this inequality. Too often women end up in situations where, next to being paid less than their male counterparts for equal work, many also carry the burden of caring for children, the elderly, their communities and the like, work which is more often than not unpaid and unrecognized. On top of all this, too many end up being subjected to sexual harassment, abuse and violence. It is therefore encouraging to see that the three Dutch supermarkets specifically point in their commitments to the recently adopted ILO Convention 190 against violence and harassment in the workplace.

The inequalities that women face are so deeply rooted in our societies that a credible attempt to tackle them must, by definition, include open collaboration with all those who can make a difference. This must start with a genuine dialogue with the women affected by injustice, with trade unions, women’s rights organisations (WROs), NGOs, but also with other companies, suppliers, fellow retailers, local and national governments and other decision makers. It is remarkable that the three retailers commit to design their own due diligence processes to do just that. They also promise to not only contribute to respecting the rights of women in their supply chains, but to also use their influence in these chains to bring about positive change and convince others to follow suit.

What makes the above commitments all the more significant is that they are not only expressed as a matter of principle, but they are backed by very concrete and time bound actions that the three retailers promise to undertake in the short and medium term. For example, they commit to undertake and publish in depth research into the situations of women in their supply chains through Human Right Impact Assessments within two years from today. The three supermarkets also commit to follow these investigations by concrete action plans to actually tackle the inequalities identified.

Arguably the most impactful concrete action that the three retailers commit to undertake is addressing the thorny issue of low wages affecting the women who produce our food. All three Dutch supermarkets promise to make this a central element of their targeted actions in at least three supply chains, with specific ambitions to reducing the difference in pay between women and men and report publicly about the progress. This is a cornerstone commitment, which, if implemented, has the potential to deliver concrete positive changes in the lives of women food producers.

Some go the extra mile

It is very encouraging to see that each of the three retailers used Oxfam’s recommendations on women’s rights as a guide to draft their new commitments. Jumbo and Albert Heijn specifically name Oxfam Novib in their published commitments and indicate their willingness to engage with us on this topic in the future. We welcome these mentions and look forward to the future dialogue. Oxfam Novib will remain the ‘critical friend’ on which companies can rely as a source of advice, direction and, when needed critique in order to achieve change.

The fact that Jumbo published their commitments on women’s rights ahead of the start of Oxfam Novib’s public actions on the topic shows the that the company wanted to take a leadership role before our supporters needed to make their voice heard. The example that they set proved an important catalyst for the commitments subsequently made by Lidl Netherlands and Albert Heijn.

That being said, while Lidl Netherlands and Albert Heijn took a bit longer to pick up the challenge than Jumbo, their commitments are, on a few points more advanced and more ambitious than Jumbo’s. For example, Albert Heijn and Lidl both explicitly recognize the intersectionality of women rights and other forms of discrimination, such as ethnicity, sexual orientation or social status. These two companies also go further than Jumbo in committing to more transparency regarding the functionality and effectiveness of their grievance mechanisms for women in supply chains. Lidl and Albert Heijn also explicitly commit to take action in their own operations to ensure women are being treated equally in processes such as hiring, training and promotion and they also commit to publish more detailed information on gender data and the pay gap between men and women. It is also noteworthy that Albert Heijn and Lidl also indicate they will actively support at least 25% of their suppliers with with resources and information to promote gender equality.

Limitations

The steps that the three Dutch supermarkets have made in the past few days are very significant, but they are far from perfect. For example, treating gender as a binary term, as outlined in the recent commitments of the three Dutch retailers, carries with it the risk of assuming ‘gender’ is merely about distinguishing between men and women. Meaningful action on ‘gender’ requires a more sophisticated approach, which addresses the broader spectrum of gender identities, power relations and inequalities. Nevertheless, these commitments represent the important start of having a more inclusive and fair food system. Oxfam Novib will work with companies to find opportunities to address gender diversity as these commitments are being implemented.

Another limitation is that none of the three supermarkets have specifically committed to increase the proportion of products they source from women agricultural producers and women-owned businesses in global supply chains. Also, the more difficult topics such as tackling low wages or closing the gender pay gap are being addressed through deep dives into a very limited number of supply chains, with little indication as to how the lessons learnt will be expanded to the thousands of products these supermarkets offer on their shelves. While it is encouraging to see that the three supermarkets commit to prioritize the supply chains most affected by human rights issues, the premise of a successful due diligence approach implies that the lessons learned are applied to an increasing number of products.

Conclusions and further action

The very important commitments that Albert Heijn, Jumbo and Lidl made in the past couple of weeks have the potential to bring about concrete improvements in the lives of women workers and farmers who produce our food. But in order to achieve that, they need to be converted from promises to practice. Oxfam Novib will continue to monitor how these supermarkets fulfil their promises in the future. But we cannot do this alone. The task at hand is enormous and we call on all those who care about how our food is produced to join us.

Equally important, our campaign demonstrates that outside pressure is still much needed to secure ambitious action and we are pleased to see that the three companies have responded constructively. But large scale, systemic change is only possible if governments, legislators and other public sector decision makers ensure no company has a choice whether or not to do the right thing. This is why Oxfam Novib is an active member of the Initiative for Sustainable and Responsible Business Conduct (IDVO), which explicitly asks these actors to enact regulations that mandate all companies to implement thorough and transparent human rights and environmental due diligence processes, supported by solid grievance and remedy mechanisms for the women and men at the beginning of supply chains. It is essential that the progress achieved today by Oxfam Novib’s supporters is backed by urgent regulatory action to achieve a fair level playing field for our entire economies.

Ioan Nemes is Private Sector Lead at Oxfam Novib. He coordinates Oxfam Novib’s various work with companies in The Netherlands and beyond. The main aim of this work is to eliminate the inequalities and exploitation in the supply chains of companies.

A Dutch version of this blog is available here: https://oxf.am/3AZO0VT

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.