Mexico: Social responsibility alliance expects certificate system by late 2017

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Mexico: Social responsibility alliance expects certificate system by late 2017

The International Produce Alliance to Promote a Socially Responsible Industry (AHIFORES) is edging closer to its goal of establishing a wide-ranging certification to elevate the living standards of Mexico's fruit and vegetable farmworkers. 

The alliance was formed shortly after the industry-shaking investigative report "Product of Mexico" from the Los Angeles Times, although co-founder Mario Flores has previously indicated its formation was in the works prior to that publication. 

AHIFORES director Aimée Nuñez tells Fresh Fruit Portal the organization, now in its third year, has seen some very clear examples of progress in the sector.

She says the most significant of these is the development of a certification in conjunction with NGO Mexico Calidad Suprema, described as a "distintivo" in Spanish which translates as an insignia or a seal. 

"We have been working on the certificate for a few months and it has the aim of elevating the quality of life of the worker through compliance," Nuñez says.

"We did a benchmark of international standards and compliance of Mexican law to thoroughly revise a series of criteria and standards. 

A key topic raised in the Los Angeles Times piece - apart from instances of exploitation, indentured servitude and child labor - was the conduct of independent company stores, known as 'tiendas de raya', charging workers high prices for everyday goods and foods.

"Specifically we don’t have that in a project. What we are working on are more integrated projects that encompass the problem at its roots," Nuñez responds when asked about the stores.

"It's the issue of the certificate. Growers have to comply with certain issues like labor well-being, not just with work but infrastructure, education, food and housing; the issue of the grower stores is part of these issues as well.

"The producer has to comply with the law and the worker will always benefit and won’t be exposed to those types of circumstances. That’s more what AHIFORES is about in this project."

So in other words, the certification will be able to provide a guarantee against that sort of abuse occurring?

"Yes, that’s how it is," she replies.

"Another strategic line we have is to support our sector in specific issues that present a risk, for example in child labor, social security, the issue of housing, and the issue of physical security for workers, to be able to coordinate efforts through strategic alliances to support our members – these issues are essential."

While social responsibility standards can look good on paper, questions often arise around auditing practices and how they are actually enforced. 

"AHIFORES is an alliance that promotes social responsibility. We don’t have mechanisms of auditing or punishing [members] because we are not an authority for carrying out those types of actions," Nuñez says.

"However, in the certification a technical consulting process is contemplated for the companies to comply not just with the law, but with international standards.

"The authorities that correspond to each of the issues can be in charge of the auditing or punishment of growers that don’t comply."

She adds the alliance is also working with U.S.-based industry associations United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) on their proposed ethical charter.

"It has a lot to do with the certificate we’re developing," she says.

"The biggest challenge is to make the industry aware, and into that enters the the government, associations and producers, to make them aware that we have a road to be on and to highlight the importance of implementing practices of labor well-being in companies."

In the process of her work, Nuñez says she has had the pleasure to meet workers and families who have benefited from the types of social responsibility programs AHIFORES is trying to make more widespread.

"A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with female workers in the country’s north. It caught my attention that they were the third generation working in the company that I was visiting.

"The biggest satisfaction for these women is that they had a quality of life that allowed them to have a legacy for their kids, and to educate their kids," she says, adding this includes property ownership and savings.

"And once educated they would also work for the company. This shows the profitability that it has and the return, both social and economic, that a company with a socially responsible business can have." 

Industry reach

Previous AHIFORES releases have reported the association accounts for 90% of the sector, however official figures now state 80%. Regardless, Nuñez expects membership to rise in the coming years as the certification program is rolled out.

"At the end of this year we will be delivering the first certifications, and that will help our membership grow because more companies will approach us to strengthen their work in social responsibility," she says.

"This sector has been growing a lot in recent years and in 2016 it had revenues of US$9.5 billion, and we have an impact on approximately 1.4 million jobs for farm work in Mexico. So this gives us a dimension of reach at AHIFORES.

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