Woolies de­fi­ant over Is­raeli sup­pli­ers

Lobby group causes havoc at meet­ing

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Nom­pumelelo Mag­waza

WOOL­WORTHS, which has come un­der fire for its deal­ings with Is­raeli sup­pli­ers, yes­ter­day vowed to con­tinue sourc­ing prod­ucts from Is­rael, say­ing to do oth­er­wise would cre­ate an un­ten­able sit­u­a­tion whereby lobby groups dic­tate pref­er­ences for its cus­tomers.

Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) South Africa, which wants Wool­worths to ban Is­raeli prod­ucts, took its #Boy­cottWool­worths cam­paign to the re­tailer’s an­nual share­hold­ers meet­ing in Cape Town, cre­at­ing havoc at Wool­worths head­quar­ters.

About 100 BDS pro­test­ers with pro-Pales­tinian plac­ards de­scended on the venue, while inside the meet­ing BDS rep­re­sen­ta­tives heckled man­age­ment, de­mand­ing to be treated like ev­ery other share­holder.

BDS has crit­i­cised Wool­worths for its re­luc­tance to meet with the group to un­der­stand its griev­ances.

How­ever, in an about-turn, Wool­worths man­age­ment now planned to meet with BDS, which has led calls for a boy­cott since Au­gust, Bloomberg cited Wool­worths chair­man Si­mon Sus­man as say­ing.

Last week BDS, which wants a to­tal ban on Is­raeli prod­ucts, roped into the fray peo­ple it de­scribed as Wool­worths share­hold­ers in its bid to pile more pres­sure on the re­tailer. Even so, Sus­man said the re­tailer would not re­move Is­raeli prod­ucts from its shelves.

“Our job is to pro­vide cus­tomers with range of prod­ucts they want from Woolies and in do­ing that we have some quite strict eth­i­cal stan­dards on how our sup­pli­ers treat their staff, hy­giene and the en­vi­ron­ment,” he said in an in­ter­view.

Meet­ing

Speak­ing to share­hold­ers at the meet­ing, Sus­man said: “We have re­peat­edly stated we do not source from the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. I can as­sure you we are not breach­ing in­ter­na­tional law.”

Sus­man said as much as there were many in­ter­ested groups on the is­sue of trade with Is­rael, there were also anti-groups of var­i­ous things that busi­nesses do.

“We have to steer that fine line on how we pro­cure our prod­ucts in the best man­ner that is eth­i­cal,” he told Business Re­port.

Board mem­bers that were ei­ther re­tir­ing or be­ing in­tro­duced at the meet­ing were also asked about eth­i­cal trad­ing.

The fact that they are with­hold­ing sup­ply in­for­ma­tion means that they are hid­ing some­thing.

While the protest out­side re­mained calm, the at­mos­phere inside the meet­ing was tense, with the is­sue of Is­raeli prod­ucts a dom­i­nant theme.

Wool­worths has said cur­rently it only im­ported three prod­ucts from Is­rael: figs, pomegranates and pret­zels, worth R12 mil­lion. The re­tailer sources some 95 per­cent of its food prod­ucts lo­cally.

The meet­ing be­came chaotic at one stage when Sus­man read out vot­ing re­sults. While share­hold­ers who ap­peared not both­ered by Wool­worths trad­ing links with Is­rael cheered the res­o­lu­tions re­ceiv­ing more than 90 per­cent of the votes, the BDS-aligned share­holder con­tin­gent ob­jected, call­ing Sus­man to or­der. Sus­man an­nounced the re­sult amid shout­ing and ob­jec­tions.

Sus­man said Wool­worths found it­self in a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion be­cause it ser­viced a di­ver­gent base of cus­tomers. Dur­ing the meet­ing he re­peat­edly said Wool­worths was not break­ing any trad­ing rules.

“Man­age­ment feels that we are pro­tected by the con­sti­tu­tion and by the rules of the land to trade with who­ever we want. Se­condly, we have many di­ver­gent cus­tomer groups,” said Sus­man.

The board mem­bers were ques­tioned if Wool­worths paid VAT on im­ported prod­ucts from Is­rael, to which they said they did. Ques­tions about the iden­ti­ties of its Is­rael sup­pli­ers and claims that Wool­worths’ new Aus­tralian business David Jones was sourc­ing its Soda Stream prod­uct from oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries in Pales­tine were not ad­dressed. Wool­worths said its sup­plier in­for­ma­tion was con­fi­den­tial.

Ev­i­dence?

BDS leader Mo­hammed De­sai said Wool­worths was be­ing tar­geted be­cause it preached ethics. He said he was aware that many other re­tail­ers and busi­nesses traded with Is­rael “but Wool­worths is the first company we want to deal with. This is a build up and things are about to heat up.”

But asked whether BDS had ev­i­dence that Wool­worths was sourc­ing from oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, De­sai said he had none “but the fact that they are with­hold­ing sup­ply in­for­ma­tion means that they are hid­ing some­thing”.

Sus­man said it was dif­fi­cult to see ev­i­dence that the protests had im­pacted sales, but con­firmed that stores which were tar­geted had been dis­rupted.

He said Wool­worths could not hide be­hind the fact that it was the only re­tailer that has been tar­geted by BDS.

“They have cho­sen to tar­get us be­cause they feel that if they can get us to change, they can get a knock on [ef­fect for] busi­nesses to change.”

He con­tended that there was a whole lot of Is­raeli tech­nol­ogy which was deeply en­trenched in South Africa such as the ir­ri­ga­tion, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion and med­i­cal treat­ment sys­tems, but no­body was tak­ing is­sue with that.

Sus­man said there was no mid­dle ground when it came to which coun­try to trade with be­cause ei­ther one was free to trade or not.

“The best thing is to stick to our prin­ci­ples and that is the view shared by the man­age­ment,” added Sus­man. Wool­worths shares fell 0.89 per­cent to R79.30 yes­ter­day.

PHOTO: AR­MAND HOUGH

Pro-Pales­tinian sup­port­ers protest out­side Wool­worths head­quar­ters in Cape Town yes­ter­day.

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