Every little helps!

Few retailers attract as much everyday media attention as Tesco. The retail giant is one of the largest in the world, so news stories about its activities have global appeal. But Tesco is also so prominent in numerous countries around the world, including Ireland, that stories (such as about its role in the centre of the current storm about cross-border shopping) will always find a readership.

For geographers, the cross-border shopping row is certainly worth thinking about: it offers some fascinating insights into the struggles and dilemmas of people living on or close to national boundaries and the ways in which fluctuating currencies or different legislative regimes affect their daily decisions about seemingly mundane issues (such as where to shop) and more fundamental aspects of life (such as where to seek medical care).

But perhaps one of the most enlightening recent stories about Tesco focuses on its failure to meet its promise to pay a “living wage” to South African workers on fruit farms. Unlike a minimum wage, which ensures workers are stuck on little more than subsistence pay, a living wage is intended to be “enough to meet basic needs and to provide some discretionary income”. According to the Guardian article, Tesco signed up to an Ethical Trading Initiative to pay living wages to workers on farms from which it sources its fruit. But the the anti-poverty charity, War on Want, says Tesco has not fulfilled its promise. Many of the farm workers still must get by on the minimum wage. As Tesco says, ‘every little helps’ –  so, wherever it can squeeze some more out of workers must help it achieve its mega-profits!

Now, all of this is so enlightening because it serves as a good reminder that geography needs to be about remembering that what’s out of sight, won’t always be out of mind! Here we see that our relations with commodities, how they’re produced, and how they move through the world connect us with people that seem so far away. But as the word ‘globalization’ keeps trying to tell us, far-flung people and places can be quickly brought up close and thrust in our faces. Tesco might wish that these sorts of time-space-twisting news stories wouldn’t break, thereby keeping the low-paid fruit pickers out of mind. But, of course, just because shoppers hear about Tesco’s broken promises doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll stop shopping there. As the changing retail geography of Maynooth shows, Tesco keeps pulling in the punters.


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