Taste the Indifference
Guest Blog: A Sainsbury’s Shareholder Activist speaks
Human rights campaigner and freelance journalist Lucy Dunne on Sainsbury's and the occupied territories.
How can we, in our everyday lives, avoid complicity in violations of human rights? In the case of Israel and Palestine, the answer is quite clear: be an ethical consumer, and don’t support companies operating in illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories. Targeting illegal produce can also be viewed as a crucial part of the broader campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, first called for by Palestinian Civil Society back in 2005.
The campaign on settlement produce alone has delivered very tangible successes. In 2012, the Co-operative group became the first major European supermarket to announce it would no longer trade with companies operating in illegal West Bank settlements in the Occupied Territories.
For campaigners such as myself, this landmark decision not only was a clear victory, but exposed all other UK supermarkets to charges of complicity in violations of human rights and international law.
I’m now part of a growing movement of activists and campaigners who are asking the supermarket Sainsbury’s to change its stocking policy. As things currently stand, Sainsbury’s still continues to trade with a number of Israeli agricultural companies which include Mehadrin and EDOM and which operate packing houses and farms in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In early 2013, the ‘Taste the Indifference’ Campaign was launched, calling on Sainsbury’s, a founding member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), to show moral leadership on the issue of settlement produce. A nationwide company with strong fair trade credentials, it seemed to be a supermarket more willing than most to change its ways. This month has been an eventful one for the campaign.
On 9th July, myself and a number of shareholder activists and campaigners attended Sainsbury’s AGM at the QE2 Conference Centre in the heart of Westminster. We issued an open letter to Mike Coupe, Sainsbury’s incoming Chief Executive Officer. Signed by a number of prominent NGOs, academics and trade unions, it stated:
“By sourcing products from Israeli export companies including Mehadrin and EDOM, both of which operate in illegal Israeli settlements, Sainsbury’s is benefiting from and providing economic support for the continued existence and expansion of these illegal settlements.”
The letter went on: “We urge you to consider whether your continued business relationship with Mehadrin and EDOM is compatible with your own undertakings and, most importantly, with your company’s position on ethical sourcing of produce.”
A petition with the names of over 6,500 people in support of the 'Taste the Indifference' campaign was also presented to the company outside the conference centre. 2000 postcards were also collected.
Attending the AGM itself, not all of us had the luck of being called to speak, however at least three questions were put to the board on the issue of settlement produce. We were treated with cheers and boos from a number of other shareholders.
The response from Sainsbury’s to our questioning was mainly one of denial. When reminded of their responsibilities under the Ethical Trading Initiative to respect basic rights in the supply chain, Sainsbury’s maintained that no evidence could be found that their own brand products were sourced from illegal settlements. Sainsbury’s was repeatedly questioned about their trade with the companies Mehadrin and EDOM.
Non-executive director David Tyler replied for the Sainsbury's board:
“We are well aware of this issue, we monitor and audit with regard to the companies in our supply chain. We can't find any evidence that those companies have done anything wrong. I think you are asking a wider question for us to boycott the products of any company sourcing from the settlements. We do not source from any company sourcing from settlements in the West Bank in our food and non-food products.”
One personal motivation I had in attending the AGM was to speak on behalf of Rashed Khudairy, the Coordinator of Jordan Valley Solidarity in the West Bank. The Jordan Valley is one of the most fertile regions in the West Bank, with 37 illegal settlements. Mehadrin, for example, sources its products from the settlement Beka'ot, located firmly within the territory. Rashed had asked that I speak about the working conditions of Palestinians in my appeal to Sainsbury’s. He said:
“Many Palestinians are forced to work in the settlements, because their land has been taken from them. The settlements freely exploit Palestinian men, women and children. They pay 70 shekels (£10) per day, which is less than half the Israeli minimum wage. They have no written contracts and receive no sick pay, health insurance or holiday pay. As Palestinians we call on Sainsbury’s to stop this exploitation. We ask you to stop trading with the companies that work in the illegal Israeli settlements.”
A final line of questioning related to the company SodaStream. Ethical Consumer recently reported on the closure of the shop EcoStream in Brighton, belonging to the Israeli parent company Sodastream. SodaStream has a factory in the illegal West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim and its shop in Brighton was a focal point for activists and campaigners since it opened its doors in 2012. Its closure has been hailed as a victory for BDS, with John Lewis now deciding to remove SodaStream from its shelves. Sainsbury’s continues to sell their products.
When questioned about SodaStream specifically, the board stated that in future products produced in a settlement would have to be clearly labelled accordingly in future. This appeared to be an open admission of the ethically dubious provenance of non-own brand products.
We await to see whether Sainsbury’s will follow in the Co-operative’s footsteps and cease to do business with companies such as Mehadrin and EDOM that profit from the settlement economy. We are also keen to see their position change on the stocking of SodaStream products.
There is a national day of action targeting Sainsburys on 2nd August 2014. Find out more at the campaign website.
You can follow Lucy on Twitter @lucydunne_ and visit her website.
Update: Tesco has today (30/07/2014) announced that as of September 2014 it will no longer be sourcing its own brand dates from an Israeli company that packages the produce in the West Bank.
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