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Does SA condone worker abuse by buying Brazilian chicken?

If one accepts that employees who feel valued and are treated well deliver high quality outputs, then the food safety lapses in Brazil’s chicken industry should come as no surprise, given the well documented human rights abuses in its supply chain.

Exploitative labour practices that verge, in some cases, on outright slavery, are the dark side of Brazil’s much-vaunted international competitiveness.

The following examples are enough to let one’s blood run cold:

  • According to the Global Slavery Index, 161 100 Brazilians were trapped in modern slavery in 2016.
  • In 2017, the Brazilian government approved a major Labour Code Reform that, in at least two cases, increased workers’ vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. The first expanded subcontracting from support services only to core staff, such as such as factory workers. Sub-contracted staff in Brazil earn 25% less than those directly employed, and tend to work longer weekly hours under more precarious health and safety conditions. The second change allowed collective bargaining to take precedent over the law. Following this reform, negotiations over salary, working hours and conditions would be decided between employers and workers, and could be enforced even if conditions leave workers worse off than what is legally guaranteed. In practice, it legalises payments inferior to the national minimum wage and allows employers to impose lower salaries and working standards.
  • In addition to the Labour Code Reform, legislation was proposed that would allow employers to pay rural workers in food, accommodation, commodities or land, instead of a salary. In addition, workers would no longer be entitled to mandatory weekly days off and it would become legal for them to work 18 consecutive days. The absence of salary and time off present a violation of workers’ rights as set out in international treaties.
  • An investigation into the industrial meat complex in Brazil, published in November 2017 by the IATP, found that workers in chicken processing plants suffered far more repetitive strain injuries and took far more sick leave than the national average – a clear indication of below-par working conditions.

If people in the chicken supply chain are indeed treated this poorly, breaches in food safety standards should not be a surprise.

What is a surprise, is that the South African government – which is in a tripartite alliance with a labour federation – has not expressed concern or called for investigations into the country that supplies most of our chicken imports. It is a crime against local workers who lose their jobs as imports displace local production; against local consumers who are exposed to potentially unsafe food; and against Brazilians who work as slaves to produce meat for export.

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