After close to two years since its introduction to the South African fruit and wine sectors, Stronger Together South Africa has seen some positive changes in the perceptions and actions regarding morally sound and responsible labour practices. But, the buck doesn’t stop here, says Jantine Werdmuller von Elgg, MD of Stronger Together, a UK-based international movement.

She spoke at a business lunch in Stellenbosch on 7 March, during which feedback was given to around 80 producer participants, retailers and industry organisations on the initiative’s growth in the past two years, and the way forward.

Last year WineLand reported that Stronger Together partnered with the Agricultural Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) and the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (SIZA) in 2017 to support South African agri-businesses to address the risk of labour exploitation within their businesses and supply chains. 

Close to 150 000 reached

“Since then, close to 850 individuals from 527 organisations have attended 58 workshops throughout the country, with a potential reach of 150 000 persons at farm level,” says Caroline Poole, Stronger SA programme manager.

The free dual language workshops and practical resources provide information and examples of labour exploitation, the risks involved in not addressing it, as well as a response plan to any potential occurrences. It also aims to facilitate dialogue between the different supply chain partners and producers – specifically international retailers and South African suppliers.

Further to this, steering groups including the value-chain, labour, Government, remedy partners and the Centre for Rural Legal Studies have been established to ensure continuous cross-pollination at all levels.

“At the start of these workshops we sometimes see discomfort with terminology such as ‘modern slavery’, ‘forced labour’ and ‘bonded labour’,” says Katy Winkworth, Stronger Together South Africa programme manager in the UK. “But then as we go through the discussion, there is that ‘Aha’ moment, when an attendee finds an aspect of the discussion is relevant to them and that they need to do something about it.”

The team of facilitators follow up with attendees two months after each workshop to assist with any further practical advice, including setting up a grievance mechanism. “This feedback also enables learnings that can be used to inform the next phase of the programme. It’s a fluid process,” says Caroline.

Challenges to be addressed

Supply-chain stakeholders emphasised in a panel the importance of an inclusive model. Everyone, from the employees at farm-level to the producers, processors and retailers need to take ownership and talk openly with each other about issues of concern to ensure a strong, sustainable and responsible industry.

“We’ve been very good at quantitative measuring; the next phase should include both quantitative and qualitative impact assessments,” said Johan Hopkins of the Cape Agri Employers Organisation of some of the challenges that still remain in this space.

According to workshop facilitator Marthané Swart of Kruger, Swart & Associates, the focus has been very much on senior management up until now, but needs to expand its reach to inform employees at farm level. “Ensure that your HR systems go from a ‘bring me bodies’ approach to a more responsible, organic and human-centred approach,” she said.

Unathi Dube, sourcing manager at Woolworths, said greater transparency is needed down the supply chain – apart from the current audits – to avoid the risk of “a Woolworths supplier” being involved in labour exploitation. “We need to be part of building a system that tracks, monitors and addresses this issue more effectively, and help with capacity building to promote responsible business practices.

André van Niekerk, systems manager at Robertson Winery, emphasised that the issue of labour exploitation is not one that is limited to the producer-worker relationship, but between all parties in the value-chain. “ If a retailer pushes a price down, the producer’s profit margin is under pressure and inevitably the employees will also be affected negatively,” he said. “The farm worker can’t exist if there is no farm.”

Jantine said that these issues will be addressed in the next phase for Stronger Together. “Today we don’t only celebrate the progress we’ve made, but also the fact that we as a group can continuously learn from one another and adapt the programme to the industry’s specific needs to ensure maximum effect.”

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