Human rights and trade | Opinion

Food and drink’s poor progress on forced labour

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Food supply chain traceability still in the shadows

New research shows that while there are some better performers, major global food brands are still not addressing human rights risks effectively in their supply chains

“Inadequate.” That is the overall assessment of the progress being made by the world’s biggest major food and drink companies when it comes to eradicating incidents of forced labour in their global supply chains. In a new ranking of 20 companies – chosen on the basis of a combination of market capitalisation and disclosure – the non-profit group KnowTheChain, says that insufficient action is being taken to deal with the issue despite the acute risks involved.

As you might imagine – given their high-profile and publicly announced initiatives and policies – Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nestlé came out on top, scoring 65, 58 and 57 out of 100 respectively. But all the other companies ranked scored under 50 points, with four of them failing to reach above a score of 15.

And it is the poor overall average score of 30 that is the most surprising thing about this benchmark, says Kilian Moote, KnowTheChain director. “This included scores as low as zero overall. It’s unfortunate that some companies are at-risk to forced labour and are just not taking any steps to address it.”

Getting worse?

However, despite individual company performance clearly not being up to scratch, the report doesn’t necessarily point to a worsening picture. And while this latest assessment doesn’t attempt to define the severity of the issue, it does point to some signs of encouragement.

About half of the 20 companies are tracing palm oil, for example, which is now more widely recognised as a commodity at risk of being produced using forced or child labour in a number of countries. Moote points out that some of the tracing efforts for commodities are fairly robust, though he argues that much more can be done to trace some of the other inputs that are also at-risk to forced labour.

In making its assessment, KnowTheChain invited questionnaire responses from the 20 companies and added publicly available information to the mix. The level of engagement will no doubt have had a bearing on the ranking outcome. For example, one of the worst performers, Kraft Heinz, submitted a standard two-paragraph response stating its current position on “not tolerating” the use of forced labour in its supplier code of conduct.

Supplier monitoring

Others went much further, explaining how they monitor suppliers – seen as a critical component in a company’s strategy to address the issue of forced labour.

Brent Wilton, Coca-Cola’s director of global workplace rights says the company is “aware that especially unskilled labour and migrant workers have little social protection and are vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking”.

Wilton says that KnowTheChain recognises the steps Coca-Cola has taken to address those risks to workers in its supply chain, for example by evaluating forced labour risks at the farm level in sourcing countries such as Honduras and Guatemala, and by committing that workers have access to their personal identity documents and do not have to pay recruitment fees.

No silver bullet

While there appears to be no silver bullet for tackling labour issues across complex food and drink supply chains, corporations can start by understanding what risks might exist across sourcing and production, Moote says. “Once a risk assessment is completed then a company can improve worker communication systems to ensure that their voices are appropriately heard and assess ways to mitigate the power of labour recruiters in the supply chain.”

But it is also critical that companies begin to collaborate with those in their sector – particularly if they want to go deeper into their supply chain. Collective action requires an understanding of what shared risks exist for any individual sector. Moote says: “Any company taking this issue seriously must also engage directly with workers and the stakeholders within the community. Appropriate action is predicated on the capacity and interest in working directly with workers.”

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