Ethical codes and social labeling are not enough: there is a need for due diligence in the agri-food supply chains

Paola Cavanna, Ph.D. at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Despite the arsenal of punitive measures and an impressive array of international legal protections, it is well known that labour exploitation in the agri-food sector is still flourishing virtually everywhere and a culture of impunity has been highlighted. According to the literature, it seems that labour exploitation is a structural problem, lying in the dynamics of legitimate supply chain practices (e.g. extensive subcontracting). As a result, European consumers can easily come into contact with labour exploitation whenever they eat, though they are increasingly pressing companies to act responsibly.

Several research projects have denounced the exploitative working conditions to which daily labourers (both third-country nationals and EU citizens) are subjected all over Italy. Following the death of a seasonal worker in the fields of Nardò (Apulia) in July 2015, investigations have recently brought light to the tomatoes supply chain, ending up in some of the major European supermarkets' shelves (e.g. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Ocado). They are selling tinned tomatoes made by companies that have been found - by Italian authorities - to benefit from ‘conditions of absolute exploitation’. This has been recently brought to the attention of the general public by ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Times’. According to Court documents, two of Italy’s biggest food companies (i.e. Mutti and Conserve Italia) are significantly linked to labour abuses of migrant workers picking tomatoes bought by consumers all across Europe. This means we are constantly eating ‘slave tomatoes’.

The scandal of canned tomatoes from Italy is only the last of a very long series. Yet, this is the first time the entire supply chain has been tracked back by the authorities. The industrial giants have stressed they are not liable for what happened (Abdullah Muhammed’s death), clarifying that they require their suppliers to adhere to their ethical codes. In addition, the companies have since cut ties with the abusive supplier and plan to sue them for brand reputation damages.

Businesses should make sure they do not have a negative impact on people wherever and however they do business, performing human-rights due diligence throughout the whole supply chain, in compliance with the UNGPs. Ethical codes and social labeling (e.g. ‘fair trade’ and ‘slave free’) are not enough.

The case clearly points out the crucial role the private sector can (and should) play in tackling labour exploitation. Businesses should make sure they do not have a negative impact on people wherever and however they do business, performing human-rights due diligence throughout the whole supply chain, in compliance with the UNGPs. Ethical codes and social labeling (e.g. ‘fair trade’ and ‘slave free’) are not enough. Moreover, they convey the idea that avoiding exploitation of workers is respectively a choice or behaviour to be rewarded and not a pre-condition to be on the market. This also puts the burden on the shoulder of consumers with the risk of a ‘market of certifications’, de facto absolving the State of its own responsibility for not adequately preventing the phenomenon of labour exploitation.

In order to avoid reputation damages, all types of enterprises in the agri-food supply chain should undertake risk-based due diligence, specifically addressing the main areas of risk (i.e. labour rights; health and safety; environmental protection). Given their dominant position, for example, large food retailers should avoid requiring tight delivery schedules of seasonal and fresh agricultural products, or at least increase purchasing prices to take into account the cash flow constraints of their suppliers. Likewise, processing companies should use their leverage to prevent or mitigate adverse impact, for instance by proactively undertaking direct verification and providing training and capacity building programmes. They should do so, though to date there is no such a legal requirement. However, as this case proves, the reputation that large companies have built in many years of genuine efforts can be quickly destroyed even if no criminal charge has been upheld. They should do so also to be ready when a due diligence requirement will become mandatory. By judging from the recent developments at the international level this will not be that far. Meanwhile, the Minister of Agriculture had a meeting on November 8, 2017, for tomatoes chain traceability and transparency. However, no tangible step has been taken yet.

 

Paola holds a Master in Law by Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Italy), where she also obtained her Ph.D. defending a thesis on the prevention of labour exploitation, specifically targeting the agri-food sector. She is currently collaborating with one of the paramount law firms in Milano, engaged in human rights protection against all forms of discrimination, with a peculiar attention to migrants.