Coca Cola responds to orange harvest 'exploitation' controversy

migrant workers orange harvest
Many migrants in and around Rosarno live in squalid conditions whilst harvesting the region's orange crop
The soft drinks giant is looking at extending its supply chain audits and facilitating talks on ensuring better standards after Ecologist investigation uncovers squalid conditions and low pay for some migrant workers in Calabria. Gianluca Martelliano & Andrew Wasley report

Coca Cola is examining how the company can help facilitate 'fair' conditions and wages for workers harvesting oranges in southern Italy. The move follows an Ecologist investigation which revealed squalid living conditions and low pay for some African migrants harvesting fruit in Calabria, much of it destined for processing into juices or concentrates used in soft drinks.

Although there is no suggestion Coca Cola or its direct suppliers are involved in bad practice or wrongdoing, the nature of the orange supply chain – with processors sourcing from multiple co-operatives and farmers – and the widespread use of migrant workers make it virtually impossible for companies sourcing from the region to avoid procuring orange products linked to the problem, campaigners say.

Coca Cola had previously acknowledged that it is unable to audit every farm or consortium whose juice may be bought by its supplier.

The US drinks giant, which manufactures Fanta, said in a statement: 'We were concerned about the recent media allegations and are seeking to understand the reports. We are now assessing the possibility of working with our local suppliers, authorities and relevant stakeholders to carry out audits from the ‘source’ suppliers. We are also exploring the active role Coca-Cola can have in facilitating the discussion and standards to ensure fair conditions and pay for all workers.'

The company reiterated that its direct Calabrian juice suppliers had been independently audited as recently as last May, and given a clean bill of health: 'Our independent audits of juice suppliers in Italy didn’t raise concerns. In addition, our juice suppliers have declarations from organisations they source from stating they comply with Italian labor laws, including fair wages.

'For many years the Coca-Cola Company has been working to support fair employment practices in the workplace. Our Supplier Guiding Principles set out expectations for workplace rights practices and we audit our direct suppliers to ensure compliance with these commitments,' the statement continued.

The company denied media reports that it had cancelled the contract with a specific juice supplier as a result of the investigation and subsequent press coverage across Italy.

Newspapers and television had quoted Elizabetta Tripodi, the mayor of Rosarno, stating that she had received a telephone call from one processor saying that its contract with the multinational had been terminated following the Ecologist's investigation, published in conjunction with The Independent newspaper.

But in a statement, Coca Cola said: 'Regarding the news relating to the specific juice processor in the region of Rosarno, the Coca-Cola Company can confirm that its current seasonal contract with this supplier is nearing its end and has not been renewed. This decision was taken prior to any news coverage and has nothing to do with the workplace allegations.'

Coca Cola confirmed its plans to continue sourcing from the region: 'We are committed to sourcing as much of our agricultural supply chain as possible locally, and we are proud of our economic roots in Italy. Locally we employ 4,000 people and, indirectly, we estimate that 46,600 people work in our supply chain.

The investigation revealed how many migrants travel from Africa in often treacherous conditions in order to seek out a better life, or secure employment to send money back to their families.

Most move between Italy's major agricultural regions – Puglia, Campania, Sicily, Calabria and Basilicata – seeking piece work during the seasonal harvests of oranges, lemons, kiwis, olives, tomatoes and melons. As many as 50,000 migrants are believed to be in Italy carrying out this work.

They typically earn 25 Euros (£21) for a day’s work in the orange groves. They are often recruited by gangmasters acting on behalf of farm owners. Some gangmasters charge workers for transport to and from the orange farms or make other deductions from wages paid by farmers.

Many migrants live in appalling conditions, in run down buildings or in makeshift slums on the edge of town. There's frequently no electricity or running water. In some cases there's no functioning roof.

Campaigners now want assurances that a 'fair price' will be paid for raw materials: 'We hope... big companies will raise the price for oranges. This means that in one single litre of orangeade, you'll have 6 cents of oranges instead of 3 cents. This would let producers work in better conditions’, Pietro Molinaro, president of the regional branch of Coldiretti, the national farmers association, told the Ecologist.

‘It's not hard for big companies and we sincerely hope that we can start a dialogue about this. We are even willing to work on the supply chain, reducing it, if needed’, said Molinaro.

Molinaro describes the current orange supply chain as a 'twisted mechanism' but says, despite cheap competition from abroad, that orange drink manufacturers can not produce orange drinks without Italian oranges.

‘Last year I visited all these local processing plants. Specialists told me that Rosarno oranges are good because they don't produce residues. This is a clear advantage. Orangeade bottles are transparent and, if you can see residues, no one buys them. That's why they should be interested in keeping this local production alive. We are not calling for a miracle. We are just calling for few cents more,' he said.

The investigation prompted widespread coverage in Italy and beyond, including reports in Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica. Rai, the state-run television station, broadcast footage from the Ecologist's film which accompanied the print investigation.

Last year The Ecologist revealed how conditions for migrants harvesting the tomato crop in Basilicata led to them being dubbed 'Europe's tomato slaves'. The story was part of the major 'Who's picking your food? report released last autumn.    

Andrew Wasley is editor of The Ecologist; Gianluca Martelliano is a journalist based in Rome


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