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The world’s largest retailers have for the first time agreed on a unified set of workplace standards aimed at eliminating problems such as child labour and unpaid wages in their vast global supply chains.

Wal-Mart, Tesco, Carrefour and Metro – the world’s four largest supermarket chains, with more than $500bn (€384bn) in aggregate annual sales – have been working with Migros, the largest Swiss retailer, to develop a draft code of standards called the Global Social Compliance Programme.

The programme includes standards drawn from the companies’ existing codes of ethics and will also set out goals aimed at standardising a range of competing monitoring initiatives to combat “audit fatigue” among suppliers.

“The ultimate objective is to improve conditions in the supply chain,” said Alan McClay, chief executive of CIES, an international association of food retailers and suppliers that is heading the initiative.

The code will cover both food and non-food production for retailers and brands – making it potentially the most sweeping initiative since the emergence of the supply-chain monitoring movement a decade ago.

However, it has received a cautious response from labour rights advocates concerned they have not been consulted in the formation of the initiative, and are excluded from a direct role in its governing board.

Instead, CIES wants non-governmental organisations and labour groups to join an advisory board that it says would be vital for its credibility.

Ineke Zeldenrust, of the Clean Clothes Campaign, one of the largest European anti-sweatshop groups, said she would welcome efforts by the large retailers to address supply-chain issues “but what I see now is a talking shop. We’d like to see them actually join one of the better existing initiatives and actually implement their codes …What we don’t need is another platform to discuss codes or standards.”

CIES’s board approved the new draft code in December. Mr McClay said details would be made public in a month or so.

The initiative marks the first time that large general retailers, rather than brands such as Nike or manufacturers such as Mattel and Hasbro, have become involved in creating a common set of global supplier standards.

Even without full support of independent “stakeholders”, the purchasing power of the participants will exert considerable influence over the field.

“They are so huge that people are going to be drawn in,” said one labour rights activist.

The involvement of Wal-Mart is the latest sign of the company’s drive to improve its reputation on social and environmental issues.

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