Jill Segger takes on the supermarkets
TE GREAt Satan? Godsend? Necessary evil? Whatever your view of supermarkets, they are here to stay and most of us will continue to use them. Convenience and economy are the criteria which form our shopping decisions and the one-stop store will meet those requirements for most people. However, the manner in which we spend our money should not lie outside the area of moral discernment.
We have been encouraged to believe that the unchecked market economy will always deliver consumer-friendly competition. This is to take a limited audit of that which constitutes the common good. The complex web of factors which makes up both the health of a community's economy and the just treatment of all its citizens, requires that commercial decisions should not be taken solely by, or in the interests of, those with mobility and reasonable levels of disposable income.
If the supermarket provides all that I need, from paracetamol to carrots, why should I bother to go round the local independent pharmacy and small greengrocer? If the supermarket's carrots are cheaper than similar roots at the village shop, should I not be glad to have saved a few pence?
But in what balance shall I weigh that saving when the small chemist in the town centre — accessible to those with limited mobility — has been driven out of business by the in-store pharmacy at VastCo on the far outskirts of town?
And what of the village shop with its community focus and amiable, leisurely social intercourse which provides so much more than material goods to the elderly and the lonely? If it has to close because it cannot match the "competitive" prices of the supermarket, part of the mortar which binds communities together is irrevocably destroyed.
The moral provenance of those "competitive" supermarket price tickets requires examination. The big retail chains exercise enormous power over their suppliers. The grower or farmer has little or no control over the conditions under which his produce will be accepted or over the price that will be paid for it. Orders can be changed or cancelled at short notice; produce may be rejected because it does not meet some unrealistic concept of how a root vegetable or egg should look to the eyes of the urban consumer. This creates a climate in which the unscrupulous are able to thrive as struggling producers find their profit margins cut ever finer.
In 1998, the Government launched the inter-departmental initiative "Operation Gangmaster" with the intention of ending the employment abuses to which vulnerable workers are often subjected by contractors of casual and seasonal agricultural labour. It is greatly to be regretted that the hoped-for code of practice never emerged due to lack of Parliamentary time. It is also to be regretted that when discussions were under way between representatives of MAFF, NFU, TGWU and the retail chains, under the chair
manship of Agriculture Minister Lord Donaghue, the supermarket's representatives only attended one meeting and were, in the words of Don Pollard, National Chair of the Rural, Agricultural and Allied Trades Group of the TGWU, less than enthusiastic". It is perhaps significant that when I attempted to discuss Operation Gangmaster with the press and PR officers of the big five supermarkets, none of them appeared able or willing to co-operate.
So what course of action is open to the concerned consumer? It is easy to feel powerless in the face of large concerns and vested interests, tempting to say that nothing I may do will make any difference. But to do nothing is to collude with the injustice done to a worker who takes home £50 after a 48-hour week of hard physical labour in order that we may have relatively cheap vegetables all year round. Supermarkets have their powers, because we, the consumers, give them those powers and although individual responses may appear to amount to little, an accumulation of such actions will effect a change in the climate of opinion which cannot be ignored. The retailers' decisions both to remove from sale products containing genetically modified material and to sign up to the Ethical Trading Initiative which gives a better deal to Third World producers, were taken in response to consumer demand. We have the power to bring about change.
Do you, or your parish justice and peace group, have the will to act?