Joint Publications

Are trade unions and NGOs leveraging social codes to improve working conditions? A study of two locally developed codes in the South African fruit and wine farming sectors

Published 21 November 2017, by Margareet Visser and Shane Godfrey

Publication: PLAAS Working Paper 49

The paper explores one aspect of the food security question, namely the livelihoods of farmworkers, which ultimately speaks to the sustainability of farms and the provision of food. It focuses on the emergence of locally made private social codes (Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association – WIETA, and Sustainability Initiative of South Africa – SIZA) in the Western Cape fruit and wine sectors and how compliance with such codes has increasingly become a requirement to export to certain markets (being an aspect of vertical governance in the fruit and wine value chains).

Many standards in private social codes duplicate rights in national legislation, but some standards improve on statutory rights and certain enabling standards that offer leveraging opportunities to worker organisations to further improve wages and working conditions. Such leveraging constitutes a form of horizontal governance of the fruit and wine value chains.

The paper analyses key sections of the two locally made social codes against the Fairtrade code and Sectoral Determination 13 (SD13). The analysis indicates where the codes improve on SD13 and how they compare to the Fairtrade code, which is generally seen to offer the best enabling standards for workers. The paper then presents the results of empirical research on the extent to which worker organisations – that is, trade unions and labour-oriented non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – have leveraged relevant standards to effect improvements for workers. The role of the state in facilitating such leveraging is also explored.

The paper finds that, in general, worker organisations have little knowledge of the WIETA and SIZA codes and hardly any attempts have been made to leverage the codes. The only contestation of the codes that had a significant impact was from an actor outside the sector and country, namely the documentary film-maker who produced Bitter Grapes. The paper questions why worker organisations have made so little of the codes.

The low capacity of such organisations is one explanation, but these organisations are also disenchanted with the codes because WIETA’s and SIZA’s sanctioning of non-compliance has been insufficient. However, probably the main reason for the failure to leverage codes is that they focus on the farm rather than the value chain. This focus excludes (primarily) global retailers and the failings in vertical governance from an assessment of the limited impact of codes.

On the one hand, it is evident to many that codes are more for appearances to mollify consumers, rather than to drive real changes in working conditions and labour relations on farms. On the other hand, in terms of farmers’ bargaining power vis-à-vis global buyers and worker organisations’ ability to make gains for workers by leveraging the codes, the effectiveness of the codes’ horizontal governance has been seriously undermined by the South African state.

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