The citrus sector in South Africa is set to be a “litmus test” for a new German supply chain law.
NGOs made the claim after the German Parliament on 11 June adopted the law, which will require large companies to regularly and systematically address human rights and environmental risks in their supply chains.
A study by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the South African campaigners Khanyisa accused German supermarkets of perpetuating “dire” labour conditions on citrus farms.
They cited labour violations including lack of access to drinking water, acute pesticide poisoning, and harassment of trade union representatives.
The report said German supermarkets had considerable power to influence the farms, which grow oranges, lemons and tangerines.
But it said German retailers such as Edeka, Rewe, Lidl and Netto tended to use this power to extract more favourable prices and contractual conditions for themselves rather than to improve workers’ rights.
Jan Urhahn, an agricultural expert at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, said: “We see the South African citrus sector as a litmus test for the German supply chain law. This will show whether Lidl, Rewe and other corporations will be required to take responsibility for their supply chains and enforce basic labour rights. If not, the supply chain law will be a toothless tiger.”
With an export volume of 80,400 tons in 2020, South Africa is the second most important supplier of citrus fruits to the Germany after Spain.
Study author Benjamin Luig said: “The supply chains are comparatively short and very traceable for German retailers.
“Lidl, Rewe... put suppliers under pressure through problematic trade practices such as short-term supply contracts and renegotiating prices. It would be better if they used their influence to push for the enforcement of workers’ rights on farms.”
German companies do require producers to be certified with the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa, but this standard does not ensure the application of the appropriate labour laws, he said.
Simphiwe Dada, director of the South African NGO Khanyisa, said: “On one farm, workers do not receive their own copy of the labour contract. On another farm, an electrically charged gate prevents workers from leaving the farm at any time. On yet another farm, a union representative was recently fired on flimsy grounds.”
The German law will require large companies to publish a report annually outlining the steps they have taken to identify and avert human rights risks. Authorities will be empowered to take action or fine companies that fail to carry out obligations.
The law will apply to companies with more than 3,000 employees starting in 2023, and to companies with more than 1,000 employees from 2024.
Campaigners Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the law was a “compromise” and lobbying from industry associations for weaker rules meant the regulations did not incorporate the highest international standards or require companies to carry out due diligence on suppliers further down the supply chain.
Juliane Kippenberg, associate director, children’s rights division, at HRW, said: “There is still a risk that human rights abuses further down in global supply chains will be allowed to continue because companies do not have to conduct due diligence for their whole supply chain.
“And abuses can occur in companies with fewer than 1,000 employees too.”
Supply chain legislation planned by the European Union and other European governments should go beyond the German law, HRW said.
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