Oxfam Germany has filed a complaint against Edeka, and Rewe, the two largest food retail companies in Germany which together account for over 45% of German market share. After publishing an article critical of working conditions on banana plantations in Ecuador and Costa Rica, the NGO filed an official complaint under the German Supply Chain Act, which came into force on 1st January 2023. Based on the UN guiding principles, the Act is designed to hold German businesses to account for human rights risks in their supply chains. Trade unions and NGOs are able to file complaints on behalf of victims, and companies can be fined if they fail to comply with their human rights due diligence obligations to prevent or remedy the human rights violations in question.
Ecuador is the first and Costa Rica the fourth largest direct supplier to the German market. Oxfam Germany, and their local trade union partners ASTAC (Ecuador) and SITRAP (Costa Rica), allege that labour rights violations are happening on plantations there supplying Edeka and Rewe – but also Aldi and Lidl. While the latter are engaging with the trade unions to address the issues raised, Edeka and Rewe are burying their heads in the sand or refusing to engage with workers and their unions in remediation attempts. Among the labour rights violations detailed in Oxfam Germany’s article are the following:
- Workers receive inadequate protection from aerial pesticide spraying, which happens without prior warning while workers are out in the fields
- Migrant workers are exploited by third party contractors who pay them poverty wages and steal their healthcare contributions (further details in this Banana Link report from June)
- Workers are expected to work long hours, but are not paid for their overtime
- Women suffer harassment and are paid lower wages than men
- Older workers in Ecuador are routinely fired just before reaching 25 years’ service, at which age they would become eligible to a modest pension
- Trade union oppression is widespread, with active unionists blacklisted by employers across the sector and even receiving death threats
Investigations by Oxfam Germany lead to the conclusion that the lack of masks and other personal protective equipment, and the broad prevalence of low wages, is the direct result of price pressure being passed along the supply chain from retailer to supplier and ultimately to the worker in the field. Certifications and audits are not sufficient to protect workers from human rights violations, partly because the certifier gives the producer advance warning of their visit, allowing the producer to create the appearance of compliance, and partly because of a financial disincentive to de-certify companies on part of certification schemes whose income is generated through certification.
The complaints will now be reviewed by the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (BAFA). Oxfam Germany intends to closely monitor the response of BAFA along with the efforts of Aldi and Lidl to act decisively and effectively to resolve human rights violations in collaboration with workers unions. Oxfam Germany states:
It must not remain without consequences if individual companies such as Rewe and Edeka violate the law while others take their legal obligations seriously. We expect that BAFA will give companies concrete instructions and clearly formulate the requirements for prevention and remedial action in the event of human rights violations. If companies do not fulfill their obligations, BAFA can impose fines: up to 2% of annual turnover.
In response to the complaint, the National Banana Corporation of Costa Rica (CORBANA), which regulates the national industry, stated that the information gathered by the NGO had not been backed up by third party sources, and many of the allegations were “false, general or inacurrate” (as reported by Reefertrends.com on 24th November 2023). However, a recent interview with Dania Obando, a leader of the National Federation of Agroindustry, Gastronomy, Hospitality and Related Workers of Costa Rica, corroborates Oxfam Germany’s claims.