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Labour unions have expressed their regret that the fruit industry has chosen to launch its own sector-specific ethical monitoring programme, when a multi-sectoral platform for the wine and fruit industries already exists for this purpose.

The wine industry in particular, working in close cooperation with trade unions and civil society organisations, has been instrumental in promoting socially and environmentally responsible trading for almost a decade. In that time it has established a respected code of compliance and the necessary audit protocols and expertise to monitor producers, according to Fatima Shabodien of Women on Farms.

The Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA), an independent not-for-profit organisation was established by the industry in 2002 to monitor compliance by members and promote ethical trade. Over the years, WIETA has expanded its mandate to include other sectors of the agricultural sector including the fruit industry.

However, says Shabodien, fruit producers have now elected to strike out on their own, without involving either WIETA, trade unions or other relevant worker or civic organisations.

 "Not to involve the very people whose quality of life is central to the objectives of ethical trading would be cynical and irresponsible, if not downright paternalistic. It is also difficult to see how worker exclusion can ensure transparency of the monitoring process.

"Surely at this point in South Africa`s history and in the face of the persistent economic downturn, agri-business should be doing everything possible to avoid adversarial relationships between farmers, workers and their communities.  Improved cooperation would also serve to better protect workers, who become all the more vulnerable in a weakened economy.

 "Producers must be able to export their products confident in the knowledge that they have been made in a way that is socially and environmentally responsible. Given the growing competitiveness in all the major markets where South African fruit and wine are sold, this is critical."

According to Shabodien, many wine producers in the Western and Northern Cape are also fruit producers.  "The introduction of a new code and audits creates an unnecessary duplication, burdening already cash-strapped growers with extra costs.  WIETA has built up a wealth of expertise on social codes and local auditing, and is recognised by the leading UK and Dutch supermarket chains, as well as the Nordic state-run liquor trading monopolies."

She stresses that WIETA has declared itself more than willing to work with the fruit industry. "Why does the wheel have to be reinvented?"