In December 2012 the Dutch Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, Lodewijk Asscher, made headlines by calling for a boycott of mushrooms sold by the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn. Its mushrooms lack a fair trade guarantee on the packaging, leading to concerns over whether they are fair trade or not. The Minister responded to media reports that mushroom workers in the Netherlands earn less than the minimum wage and suffer bad working conditions, including long hours with no breaks and poor housing. Albert Heijn is the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands and therefore a big seller of mushrooms to consumers.
Among the stakeholders creating the ‘demand for virtue’ in the Dutch mushroom industry, Mr. Asscher is a special case. People expect him and his colleagues to address them as the national legislator and as the upholder of the law, not as a member of civil society. The minister in his incursion into civil society territory addressed two other stakeholders directly: the consumers and the supermarkets. From a certain perspective, this made sense. Mr. Asscher probably judged that Dutch consumers want to have peace of mind when they buy their daily groceries – mushrooms picked by ‘modern slaves’ don’t taste so good. And that supermarkets, especially the country’s leading chain, are sensitive when it comes to critical statements that threaten their public image.
However well intended Mr. Asscher’s move for a boycott might be, we are critical of his role in the mushroom case. The Dutch labour market is well regulated as it is. Bad practices do occur, but with the laws and regulations in place, the competent agencies can be dispatched to the mushroom companies concerned. Mr. Asscher represents the national government which already does its share: by establishing laws, enforcing them, and creating an environment for standard-setting in Dutch industries. As such, our Minister of Social Affairs and Employment is a valuable partner for the mushroom sector and supermarkets alike when it comes to corporate social responsibility.
Mr. Asscher has tried to extend his position and make himself part of civil society, but he is not. His double role is confusing and risks weakening his position.
Albert Heijn vehemently responded, stating that the mushrooms it sells are exclusively Fair Trade even though this is not stated on the packaging. The Minister and Albert Heijn publicly made peace. The ‘bad apples’ in the mushroom industry have since received visits by the competent agencies. As far as everyone’s role is concerned, this is how it should be.