Edeka and Rewe violate supply chain law

Human rights violations on banana plantations

Ecuador – Supply chains – Supermärkte

Damage to health from toxic pesticides, suppression of trade unions, discrimination against older, female and migrant workers, and starvation wages – time and again, trade unions and civil society organizations, including our partner organization Oxfam, have drawn attention to the systematic human rights violations to which workers on banana and pineapple plantations in Ecuador and Costa Rica are subjected. In light of these abuses, these organizations are also addressing the responsibility of German supermarket chains that source the majority of their bananas and pineapples from these countries.

Together with the Ecuadorian union of agricultural workers and farmers in the banana sector ASTAC, Oxfam and Misereor, ECCHR recently filed complaints against Rewe and Edeka with the German Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (BAFA). The supermarket chains are accused of not taking effective and adequate steps to prevent human rights violations in their banana supply chains thus far and, therefore, of failing to uphold their due diligence obligations under the German Supply Chain Act. In addition, they not only profit from wages deliberately kept low, as well as the lax enforcement of labor protection standards on Ecuadorian plantations, but also actively contribute to the exploitation of workers, in particular through the massive pressure they exert on prices through their purchasing policies.

 

Case

The complaints are based on numerous documented human rights violations on Ecuadorian plantations that supply German supermarkets with bananas and pineapples. On the one hand, these violations include endangerment to health from the partial application of pesticides from planes and drones above the plantations, while workers are on the premises. Secondly, Oxfam and ASTAC revealed violations of the right to freedom of association, where workers were threatened or fired because of their union activities. Thirdly, our partner organizations have repeatedly documented the withholding of adequate wages, as workers were not paid the local minimum wage, let alone a living wage. They also documented cases of discrimination against older workers, who were fired shortly before they would have been entitled to receive pension benefits, and against women who earned less pay than their male counterparts for the same work, as well as particularly extreme exploitation of migrant workers.

In summer 2023, Oxfam, together with the Ecuadorian union of agricultural workers and farmers in the banana sector ASTAC and the Costa Rican union of plantation workers (SITRAP), informed the supermarkets Aldi, Edeka, Lidl and Rewe of the documented violations. The German Supply Chain Due Diligence Law (LkSG), which entered into force on 1 January 2023, obligates such companies to identify, prevent and eliminate human rights violations in their supply chains. The supermarkets were thus called upon to investigate the information they received about labor and human rights violations within their supplier operations, and to engage in an appropriate fashion and on equal footing with those affected and their trade union representatives, with the aim of eliminating the documented abuses.

Aldi and Lidl have addressed the allegations and in the meantime are in negotiations with their suppliers and the unions regarding suitable remedial and prevention measures. While Edeka and Rewe have responded to the complaints, they have thus far, however, failed to take sufficient and effective steps to better protect workers and prevent human rights risks in the banana industry. They were neither prepared to meet with affected union members, nor take responsibility for the payment of living wages by changing their banana price policies. Instead, they continue to hide behind audits and certifications – for example, from WWF or the Rainforest Alliance – despite numerous indications and statements from those affected that these companies were not in a position to expose the abuses and contribute to actual improvements on the ground.

With the complaints filed on 2 November with BAFA, ECCHR and its partners seek to take advantage of the legal possibilities of the LkSG, in order to ensure that importing supermarkets uphold their responsibilities for workers in their supply chains and take effective measures to stop the violation of labor and human rights.

Context

In recent years, Ecuador has been dominated by neoliberal economic policies that rely on foreign direct investment. With the aims of attracting investment and exporting products cheaply, labor protection measures have been dismantled, while wages have been kept low. This is particularly pronounced in the banana industry – with devastating social consequences for Ecuadorian workers.

The German supermarkets, with their purchasing power, not only benefit from low wages and the lax enforcement of labor protection in Ecuador, but also actively contribute to the exploitation of the workers, especially through exerting massive pressure on prices. One quarter of the bananas in German supermarkets are from Ecuador, which makes the country the largest banana supplier for the German market. The fact that human rights violations exist within the supply chains of all four major supermarket chains highlights the structural dimension of the problem. The LkSG obliges supermarkets to use their influence to improve production conditions, especially through responsible pricing and purchasing policies.

Media

Bananenplantage © CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed
Bananenplantage © CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

Documents (1)

Partners

Glossary (1)

Definition

Due diligence

Due diligence is a common concept in corporate risk management systems. The idea of corporate human rights due diligence (HRDD) is set out in the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. HRDD obligations refer to a company’s duty to carry out ongoing risk management to determine if its business practices could potentially adversely affect human rights. This includes risks to all those who could be negatively affected by a corporation's actions (e.g. employees, consumers, and persons who could be affected by environmental harm).

Topics (2)

Insight

Corporate responsibility

In Pakistan, workers died in a fire at a textile factory because fire safety measures had been neglected. In Peru, people living near a copper mine became ill after pollution leaked into the groundwater. In Bahrain, critics of the regime were arrested and tortured after police used commercial surveillance software to tap their phones and computers. In these three examples, responsibility for human rights violations can be traced back to foreign companies in Germany, Switzerland and the UK, respectively.

Both in economic and legal terms, transnational corporations are the winners of the globalized economy. They are often caught up in a broad range of human rights violations, but the people running the firms are only rarely called before the courts, and even more rarely convicted for their wrongdoing.

However, taking legal action against transnational corporations for violations in their global supply chain is slowly becoming a more viable option. Social movements and NGOs from the Global South are increasingly using legal tools to address human rights violations involving foreign companies by taking action in the countries where these firms are headquartered.

ECCHR aims to use legal mechanisms to help break down unjust economic, social, political and legal power relations around the world. In its Business and Human Rights program, ECCHR assists the political and social struggles of those affected by corporate human rights violations by supporting strategic legal interventions in Europe.

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