A newly announced aid programme that promises to help workers in the developing world supplying goods to British high street chains like Marks & Spencer, Primark and Morrisons has been condemned for using taxpayers’ money to “pick up the bill” for improving workforce conditions.
The £6.85m scheme, announced on Thursday by international development secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, is being promoted explicitly as benefitting British consumers to ensure they “can continue to buy affordable, high quality goods from around the world”.
Trevelyan added: “This new fund will strengthen vital supply chains for UK consumers, while supporting some of the most vulnerable workers in developing countries. It will make a real difference to people in the UK and abroad.”
The statement from Trevelyan, headlined UK Aid to Protect High Street Supply Chains, suggests that the partnership – which will see the UK government contribute £4.85m – is designed to “support workers in developing countries during the coronavirus pandemic and help keep some of the UK’s favourite products on high street shelves”, adding that it would benefit nearly 1 million people.
The announcement of the scheme follows mounting concern over the welfare of workers who supply British companies amid the global coronavirus pandemic, which has caused slumping sales and economic hardship across the globe.
Critics, however, are concerned by the framing of the programme, pointing out that the companies who will benefit already have a moral obligation to protect workers in their supply chain.
The fund, which will operate in partnership with charities like Care UK, the Fairtrade Foundation and Ethical Trade Initiative, envisages helping suppliers to the high street giants in the developing world ensure workers are adequately protected from Covid-19.
Companies that will benefit from the scheme include M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons, Co-op and Waitrose.
The scheme will focus primarily on supply chains and workers in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana.
The UK imports 20% of its food and drink from developing countries. The coronavirus pandemic has put many of these supply chains at risk as factories and farms worldwide have been forced to close temporarily.
According to the Department for International Development (DfID) M&S and Care will work together to improve health services for 80,000 factory workers in Bangladesh who keep the chain’s stores stocked with clothes.
“The programme will strengthen community health care systems and deliver targeted health messaging in factories to help employees keep themselves and their families safe. This is expected to have knock-on benefits for a further 300,000 people in Bangladesh’s poorest communities,” a DfID press release read.
Amid mounting concern over the future and direction of UK aid under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the move was described as a “disgrace” by Labour MP Kate Osamor, a member of the Commons International Development Committee, while international poverty researcher Vidya Diwakar described elements of the scheme as unlikely to be effective.
“It is a disgrace that the government is funnelling the aid budget into the pockets of wealthy businesses like Morrisons and Primark at the same time as it cuts poverty reduction programmes in some of the poorest countries on Earth,” said Osamor.
She added that UK businesses “have an obligation to ensure their workers operate in safe Covid-secure environments” and said that many of the comapanies involved in the scheme “make hundreds of millions in profit each year; the UK taxpayer should not be picking up the bill when they finally decide it’s time to improve conditions for their workforce.”
“It is clear that Boris Johnson poses a huge threat to the UK’s status as a leader in international aid spending. Following on from the decision to scrap DfID, and then cut aid funding by £2.9bn it looks increasingly likely that the focus of UK aid in the coming years will be on commercial investment rather than alleviating poverty and hunger.”
Diwakar, a researcher with the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network, while welcoming some of the commitments contained in the programme, questioned both what the announcement meant in terms of signalling for UK aid policy after DfID merges with the Foreign Office (FCO) and questioned the practicality of some measures.
“I think any new programme that comes out now needs to be considered in the light of the merger with the FCO. What I think is worrying is whether this signals a new direction of where decisions underpinning aid flows is going. Whether aid programming will be seen more in terms of benefit to UK employers rather than a more principled approach.
“Of course you can have self interest, but worryingly this type of programme moves the emphasis from the most vulnerable to the monetary interest of the UK.”
Diwakar questioned how the scheme would help informal workers in the supply chain, including a large percentage of women, who have been shown to have been most heavily hit by the economic effects of the pandemic.
A DfID spokesperson denied the money was going into the pockets of UK businesses.
“UK aid is not going to British businesses. DfID’s grant funding is providing support to workers and farmers through civil society partners that are working with businesses and their supply chain.
“The UK businesses are contributing their own money to the facility, which will improve the lives of nearly 1 million people in developing countries. The facility will also work with other businesses with supply chains in developing countries, not just UK firms.”
Partners in the scheme praised the initiative. Peter McAllister of the Ethical Trading Initiative said his organisation “welcomed the active role DfID is playing in supporting vulnerable workers in global supply chains.
“The east African agricultural workers who supply so much of our food and flowers have been hit hard by Covid-19, and DfID’s support for this intervention will help protect thousands of jobs, and protect workers from infection as the regional economy begins to recover.
Fiona Sadler, head of ethical trading for M&S added: “At M&S we have a robust approach to ethical fashion – we know we’re only as strong as the communities where we operate and we’re committed to helping improve the lives of workers in our supply chain through collaborative initiatives.”