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Tesco demurs on meeting with alliance

The local group wants a binding pledge on wages and other issues.

September 07, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Tesco, the giant British retailer that is about to open a chain of small grocery stores in Southern California, refused to say Thursday whether it would meet with a coalition of community groups concerned about the company's commitment to decent wages, affordable health benefits and greenhouse gas reduction.

The Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, which comprises 25 community groups, has proposed negotiating a legally binding agreement in which Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market chain would commit to pay "livable" wages, provide access to affordable healthcare, hire people who live near the stores and guarantee its workers the right to join unions without company hindrance.

Tesco's Fresh & Easy chain said in a statement Thursday that it would be "a good steward of the environment" and a "great place to work." The statement added that when its stores opened, "everyone will be able to decide whether we lived up to our promises."

The company declined to comment further.

Nonetheless, the coalition of labor, community, faith and environmental groups said it was hopeful that Tesco would eventually agree to a meeting to discuss the group's so-called Community Benefits Agreement proposal.

"The best way for them to be a good neighbor is by following the lead of other large developers and corporations by negotiating" an agreement, said Elliott Petty, retail policy analyst for coalition member Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

A predecessor coalition supported grocery workers in their recent contract negotiations with the major supermarket chains in Southern California.

Other coalitions have negotiated similar agreements on wages and local hiring with major developers in Los Angeles, including AEG, which is building LA Live, a $2.5-billion sports, residential and entertainment district downtown.

Tesco, the world's third-largest retailer, is spending $2 billion to build hundreds of small grocery stores in Southern California and the Southwest.

In the United States, the company has talked about adhering to green and worker-friendly practices. For instance, executives have said the pay scale for entry-level positions at Fresh & Easy will start at $10 an hour in California and include a quarterly bonus of as much as 10%.

In addition, the company has said that the stores will be designed to use less electricity and that shipping and packing materials will be either recycled or reused.

Internationally, however, Tesco has drawn the fire of labor, environmental and animal welfare groups.

This week, a British animal welfare group called Turtlesco said it would attempt to expand a Tesco boycott in England to the new Fresh & Easy chain in the U.S. The group is protesting the decapitation of live turtles for food at Tesco stores in China. The group says Tesco's slaughter method can cause suffering in the decapitated brain of the animal.

Paul Davis, a spokesman for the group, said it was responding "to the green, environmentally friendly image that Fresh & Easy are promoting in the USA by providing information about Tesco's activity in China and calling for a boycott."

The Humane Society of the United States, meanwhile, is urging Tesco to sell eggs only from farms that raise cage-free hens. Most U.S. egg producers crowd hens into cages that give each animal a floor area about the size of a sheet of notebook paper.

Some grocery stores and restaurants, including Burger King, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Markets, have turned to using and selling at least some cage-free eggs in recent years because of animal welfare concerns.

The Humane Society laid out its concerns in a letter to Tim Mason, chief executive of Tesco's U.S. operations, this year. Mason acknowledged the letter and said, "We will contact you in the future if we wish to pursue the matter."

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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