AB Sugar: Allegations of abuse in our supply chain are inaccurate and publicity-seeking

By Tracy West

- Last updated on GMT

AB Sugar: Allegations of abuse in our supply chain are inaccurate and publicity-seeking

Related tags Sugar Human rights Ab sugar

Publicity at the expense of accuracy - this is how AB Sugar has described a recently published report which makes claims of forced labour, health and safety violations and illegal land grabs – among other unsustainable practices – in one of its subsidiaries.

Produced by Dutch not-for-profit organization, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), the report focuses on a case study of sugar production at Illovo Sugar Malawi, a subsidiary of AB Sugar, which it says unearths details of labour rights violations as well as a land grab.

AB Sugar is itself a subsidiary of UK-headquartered Associated British Foods. It said the report, entitled Bittersweet – Sustainability Issues in the Sugar Cane Supply Chain​,​ used data from inappropriate sources and was based on a series of inaccuracies.

But at a time when sugar production and consumption is increasing globally and awareness of health concerns linked to excessive sugar consumption are rising, there is less awareness of the “often problematic socio-economic and environmental conditions associated with sugar cane production”,​ the report says.

From an employment point of view, the report highlights issues such as forced labour, child labour, lack of job security, low wages, and health and safety problems. As for environmental impacts, it talks about loss of animal habitats and biodiversity, pollution of land and water as well as land grabs.

In response to the report, AB Sugar put out the following statement: “With limited detail, SOMO has attempted to use Illovo Sugar Malawi (ISML) as a case study to gain publicity at the expense of accuracy. ISML is not, and has never been, involved in ‘land grabs’.

SOMO's advice to companies that use sugar:

Commit to sourcing sustainably certified sugar cane

Investigate human rights and environmental impacts in your supply chains ‡

Identify sugar cane plantations and mills at the origin of your supply chain. ‡

Verify compliance with your policies 

Launch targeted and coordinated engagements with different stakeholders in producing and importing countries to mitigate. ‡

Support sugar cane producing companies that have a good human right and environmental record

Publish the names of the sugar producers you use for public examination

Zero tolerance?

“It is therefore regrettable that our leading approach to land has not been recognised nor our internationally acclaimed land guidelines. It is also regrettable that ISML’s significant contribution to the livelihoods and economies of the Malawian communities has been ignored.”

On its website AB Sugar Ltd said that it continues to review and develop its approach to environmental and social challenges: “Of particular note is the work undertaken over the last year by Illovo to protect land rights in Africa. It has a zero tolerance to land grabs and has introduced specific guidelines to help its employees and suppliers to conduct business in compliance with local legislative frameworks and internationally accepted best practice standards.”

The report’s summary says that buyers are seldom interested in knowing the source of the sugar they source.

But a spokesperson for the UK industry group, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said: “The report highlights that companies are taking action to ensure their responsible sourcing of sugar. Actions taken include company buyers encouraging refiners to implement a policy to import sugar from audited suppliers.”

In its conclusion, the report states that at most 4.5% of global sugar cane product is sustainability certified. In response to this figure, AB Sugar said it was puzzled as to how the authors had got to that number and therefore could not comment.

But the FDF spokesperson said: “We expect to see the percentage of sustainably certified sugar cane production to grow in coming years, but this growth will need to be driven by those major cane consuming markets listed in the report, with support from EU refiners and end users.”

SOMO's report can be downloaded for free here.

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1 comment

Alleged inaccuracies needlessly echoed

Posted by Sanne van der Wal,

Land grab and disrespect of worker rights in the sugar cane sector are pressing issues. We much appreciate this article paying attention to these problems as well as other aspects of our report including its recommendations to the industry. We invited AB Sugar to react to our findings before publishing them on 1 December. All the relevant aspects of AB Sugar’s position were included in the report. We regret that the author does not acknowledge this fact or solicited our reaction as this would have made clear that our findings are accurate. Moreover when AB Sugar’s allegation of our inaccuracy is the article’s key message, as the title suggests, this should be properly motivated or referenced in the article as are all the findings in our report. Indeed the author asking AB Sugar about our report’s estimate of the volume of certified sugar globally suggests that she has not taken a serious interest in our report because it clearly provides the foundation of the estimate.

Sanne van der Wal, one of report's authors

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