Task team must act to end dumping of chicken or industry could implode
While the crisis continues, interdepartmental body has produced no report since it was set up nearly a year ago
An important anniversary is on the horizon, but it’s not one to celebrate. Quite the opposite. In November, one year will have passed since Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies set up an interdepartmental task team to develop a rescue plan for the South African poultry industry, which is under threat of annihilation from below-cost sales of dumped chicken, especially from the EU. The EU is supposedly a "partner" of SA in trade and development.
The task team, it seems, has approached this crisis with the urgency of a retreating glacier. So far, no final report has been produced and therefore no recommendations are before the minister for him to make informed decisions about actions that will secure the industry into the future.
These are critical decisions that could encourage investment, development and transformation opportunities within an industry that is the largest component of our agricultural sector, contributing 18% of agriculture GDP in 2016 and 39% of animal-product gross value.
It’s an industry that’s key to our food security, chicken being the major protein source for South African consumers, according to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries itself. It’s an industry that employs 110,000 real people who support real families — it’s estimated that for every worker, there are up to 10 dependants at home.
Unemployment in the sector has an exponential effect on communities and, ultimately, on the wellbeing and food security of the nation. But one year on, the government’s task team has produced no report or recommendations: nada, zilch, nothing.
This is ludicrous and totally unacceptable. Even an interim report six months ago would have been something; at worst a signpost of the direction in which the task team is going, at best a summary of progress and the outline of a coherent plan. But no. Not a word.
The minister is accountable to everyone and we have every right to demand to know: why is there no report? Where are the recommendations? What must we do to ensure our vital poultry industry doesn’t go the way of those of Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leone… to name a few countries whose poultry industries have been wiped out by dumped chicken?
Since November 2016, parliamentary committees have met. Public hearings have been held. It’s created an impression of government activity, but a lack of action renders them meaningless.
A timeline of media reports about the task team’s workings shows up the vagueness that lives where urgency should:
January 19: "An interdepartmental government task team has been working on a rescue plan… since mid-November".
January 30: "The task team has secured significant progress to develop a response to the complex challenges facing the domestic poultry industry."
February 6: "Mr Davies has reiterated the government’s intention to save the industry and to protect it from the importing of cheap chicken from the EU…"
Somewhere along the way, the fact that the industry is in crisis seems to have been forgotten
February 15: "SA’s poultry industry will be protected against the surge of imports, otherwise there may be no industry left, said Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies."
June 14: "Davies said the work of the poultry task team was ongoing…"
But where are the results? The task team chairman, Garth Strachan, is answerable to every organisation that made submissions to the team, participated in discussions and made recommendations, presentations and reports available that would assist them in the execution of their important mission. What more do they want?
Somewhere along the way, the fact that the industry is in crisis seems to have been forgotten. If this crisis were a tin can, it would be well and truly kicked down the road and its contents – poultry workers and their families – would be in a perilous state. As it is, they suffer in their thousands. It’s too easy outside the glare of media attention to forget that over the past five years, 12 chicken businesses have closed or been taken over and between 4,000 and 6,000 jobs have been lost, directly affecting up to 60,000 people and their communities.
Yes, there have been other issues that have exacerbated the situation, such as the drought, which escalated feed prices. But that is over, and the relief is measurable in improved share prices for at least one of the bigger producers.
Weather conditions are cyclical — droughts will certainly come again, and a robust industry in an enabling environment is able to weather such storms.
Yes, the industry has also reeled from mass cullings of chickens due to avian influenza, but that too shall pass; every farmer experiences animal disease, and there are factors that mitigate the losses.
The only thing that won’t pass, unless the government acts to end it, is dumping.
A recent article on Devex, the media platform for the global development community, said there were other repercussions of the troubles in the poultry industry. An estimated 20,000 jobs in the grain industry are threatened if the market for chicken feed disappears, according to the article. Further, dumping undermines SA’s food security, it impedes rural development in areas where unemployment exceeds 25% and it has a significant effect on the national economy.
The global community seems to be more aware of the crisis than our own government. In August, the anti-dumping movement FairPlay, in co-operation with the University of Johannesburg, facilitated a summit bringing together NGOs and business to consider what initiatives at local level could mitigate the effect of retrenchment and create hope based on practical action.
The keynote address was delivered by Richard Goldstone, an international jurist and former Constitutional Court judge, who is a FairPlay patron. He said the government should act to prevent predatory dumping.
"If the facts establish predatory dumping — that the parties dumping have as a motive the destruction of South African competitors — then the rule of law and fair play in trade dictate that on moral and legal grounds action should be taken," Goldstone said.
"It would indeed be in the interests of the government to take action against a practice that is doing damage to a very important industry and potentially causing loss of employment for thousands of workers."
At the summit, a Cry for Action petition signed by more than 8,000 poultry workers and retrenched workers was finalised and is soon to be delivered to President Jacob Zuma and Davies in the hope that they’ll respond and take steps to end the dumping of chicken in SA.
Government action has been promised for nearly a year. This is the end of the road. It is time for action. Now.
• Dillon is a FairPlay activist.