FACING threats of an international boycott of its produce, the fruit industry has introduced a programme, the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa, to support growers and employees in the improvement of working conditions on farms.

Steps to introduce the programme have been in the making since 2008 and if all fruit farming parties had come on board earlier, some in the sector believe the De Doorns violent labour protests could have been prevented.

However, the reluctance by some organised farming bodies in the industry to support the programme on the grounds that it s benchmark s were too strict and that it was imposing international ethical codes on workers’ living standards, had prolonged its negotiations and consultation period and, subsequently, its implementation.

Fruit South Africa ethical trade co-ordinator Colleen Chennell said it was most unfortunate that the Western Cape problems started just as the industry was reaching consensus and was preparing itself to engage in a structured manner.

"We plan to launch the programme throughout the fruit farming community in a bid to support growers and employees with the continuous improvement of working conditions on farms and we will soon roll it out throughout country.

"It is timeous that the fruit industry’s ethical trade programme is being launched in a bid to support growers and employees with the continuous improvement of working conditions on farms throughout South Africa," she said.

Agriculture, and the fruit industry in the Western Cape in particular, has faced the serious challenge of violent worker protests in the past three weeks.

Ms Chennell said the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa programme would have growers audited by independent auditors on a locally developed and internationally recognised standard, which would enable them to provide evidence of ethical compliance to all parties, including retailers, the government, nongovernmental organisations and unions.

"The formal establishment of (the programme) is the culmination of four years of industry consultations, engagement with a broad range of stakeholders and document and resource development."

She said there was now broad support for the programme from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Confederation of South African Workers Unions, and international and local retailers.

The fruit industry project comes almost a year after the wine industry initiated moves to clean up its tarnished international reputation after a Human Rights Watch study last year said workers were being exploited on wine farms.

Responding to criticism and threats to its international market, the industry established a seal to be used by qualifying wine producers as part of a peer-review audit system of labour-related practices in wine estates and suppliers’ farms aimed at encouraging fair labour practices.

The Sustainability Initiative of South Africa is therefore a locally driven ethical programme by the fruit industry which has aligned its social standards to South African labour law and benchmarked this against international requirements through a process managed by the Global Social Compliance Programme.