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Oxfam publishes concerns about M&S supply chain workers

Tom Shearsmith
14 January 2021

Backed by Marks & Spencer, Oxfam has independently conducted an investigation into the company's supply chains in the UK and India, raising concerns about in-work poverty, inadequate sick pay and discrimination.

The report included research based on interviews with 390 workers at food manufacturing sites in the UK and leather footwear factories in India supplying M&S, 49 supplier managers, 17 M&S managers and 46 external sector experts.

The scope of the study focused on gender equality, worker voice and in-work poverty, with the interviews providing insight into the perspectives of a large sample of people in M&S supply chains, with important and consistent themes emerging: a lack of effective worker voice, concerns about speaking out, inadequate sick pay and difficulty in meeting living costs in some instances.

A key conclusion from the report was that there is a disconnect between the information that M&S managers receive about conditions in workplaces, based largely on third party ethical audits, and what workers report as their experience.

The report calls for retailers, including M&S, to move away from a reliance on compliance and audits and explore alternative methods of assuring standards such as better worker representation and reporting channels and business practices that drive positive change.

Rachel Wilshaw, Workers’ Rights Senior Manager for Oxfam, said: “This joint project gave Oxfam a rare opportunity to hear directly from workers in M&S’s supply chain. What they told us makes for uncomfortable reading. Workers described many problems that don't normally come to light because of a lack of trust in reporting channels.”

Oxfam’s long-standing relationship with M&S has helped pave the way for this ‘beyond audit’ approach to enable the company to deepen its understanding, find workable solutions to challenging issues and galvanise sector-wide change.

Carmel McQuaid, Head of Sustainable Business at M&S said: “Setting standards in our own supply chains, however rigorous, can only set a baseline. To be serious about ensuring everyone who works with M&S is treated with decency and respect, we must hold a mirror up to make sure the reflection is true. And for this reason, we asked Oxfam to conduct a ‘gap analysis’ of our supply chain.

The findings of the independent report have made clear that whilst audits remain a key tool for businesses, nothing beats hearing directly from workers. As part of our response, we have already taken action to scale our worker voice programmes and we commit to share our learning about what works and to help drive meaningful industry-wide change.”

Wilshaw added: “For M&S to open up its supply chain to Oxfam’s scrutiny shows it is willing to engage on difficult issues and open to improve. We need more companies to do the same. A global cross industry effort is needed with stronger government regulation and better worker representation. M&S can play an important role in bringing about effective change across the sector.”

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