S. African poultry industry workers on Wednesday marched to the European Union's headquarters in Pretoria, accusing the EU of dumping cheap chicken in the country. The EU says it is not the cause of the industry's woes.
About 500 workers, former workers and company managers from the South African poultry sector took part in the protest, warning that the local poultry sector was on the brink of collapse due to the dumping of cheap chicken. The message on the banners was clear: "Organize or starve," one read while another proclaimed "Dumping destroys SA jobs."
The South African Poultry Association (SAPA) is calling for a stop to the imports which it says have led to at least 5,000 jobs being lost. The country's largest poultry producer Rainbow Chicken Limited (RCL)last month laid off 1,350 employees, that's about 20 percent of its workforce, and is selling 15 of its 25 farms.
Financial and health concerns
The SAPA accuses the EU, along with Brazil and the US, of dumping surplus chicken in their country.
They allege that up to 30,000 tonnes of chicken portions not wanted in these countries are being exported to South Africa monthly at extremely low prices which is choking the local market.
Kevin Lovell, Chief Executive Officer at SAPA, warned that for every 10,000 tonnes imported, up to 1,000 jobs could be lost.
Lovell said, "We are a waste dump for Europe's leftovers and that's a terrible thing to be. We are a developing part of the world. We don't want to be anybody's waste dump, so it's harming the South African industry."
He added, "Essentially, all of our trouble is because of the EU, not anybody else. Don't blame the Brazilians. Don't blame the Americans. Accept that this is an EU problem caused by the EU."
Lovell said while the EU producers make enough money marketing chicken breasts in their home market, the leftovers (mainly chicken legs and wings that is considered as dark meat) is sold as a waste product.
Frozen leg quarters imported to South Africa from Europe cost R17.52 per kilogram (one euro, twenty-one cents, or US$1.30) which is 30 percent cheaper than local producers.
The demonstrators on Wednesday handed a protest note to an official from the Delegation of the European Union in Pretoria as a heavy police presence monitored the event.
"We are protesting because of chicken from overseas. We're not sure they are healthy and they are going to destroy our work," Elizabeth Mokale, a chicken farm laborer from Rustenburg in North West province, said.
EU hits back
However, the EU has dismissed SAPA's claims and said the volume of EU chicken imported to South Africa was too small to be responsible for the crisis.
"When people are losing livelihoods, trade deals can be a handy scapegoat," EU Ambassador Marcus Cornaro told reporters on Tuesday.
The Chief Executive Officer of the South African Association of Meat Importers and Exporters, David Wolpert, also rejected the protesters' claims. "We have continuously heard of lower prices of imports as opposed to local products, but that fact has never been proved to us. Our figures show that import prices have ever been more expensive than the local equivalent," he said.
The EU cited lack of competition, a severe drought pushing up feed prices, rising electricity costs and injecting brine as major problems affecting the poultry industry, rather than EU imports.
Government action fails to quell protests
The row marks a rocky start to the European Partnership Agreement, a free trade deal signed last year by the EU and southern African countries, including South Africa.
According to figures from Brussels, EU exports account for less than seven percent of total South African chicken consumption. But the South African Poultry Association disputes this figure, saying at least 30 to 35 percent of the total consumption of poultry products in South Africa was imported from EU countries.
On top of tough avian flu restrictions, South Africa had previously imposed anti-dumping duties on EU importers, and in December also introduced an extra "safeguard" tariff to try to protect the industry.
But this is not enough for South Africa's chicken producers who continue to call on the government to increase protection from European imports.
SAPA's Kevin Lovell warned that a lot of companies in the industry are closing down. "The best solution for us is that the developed world acknowledges it's fine for their consumers to have dietary preferences, but it's wrong for the consequences of those preferences to be exported. That is the best solution. If there was a lawful ban, we would obviously support it.," he said.
Thuso Khumalo contributed to this report.