We need to empower workers to address the most intractable labor issues in agricultural supply chains

Felicitas Weber, BHRRC KnowTheChain Project Lead & Irit Tamir, Oxfam America

Last week, Know the Chain released its Food and Beverage Benchmark Findings Report which assessed how 20 of the largest publicly held companies are addressing forced labor in their supply chains. With 21 million people being victims of forced labor around the world and the agricultural sector generating US$9 billion in profits from that labor each year the food and beverage industry is a high risk sector for forced labor.

Similarly, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign assessed how the top 10 food and beverage companies treated workers in their supply chains more broadly and also included the issue of forced labor in that assessment. All of the top 10 companies were in the KnowTheChain benchmark except for Mars, which is a privately held company. While Oxfam’s assessment covered a broader set of issues, the results were quite the same.

In the Behind the Brands scorecard, the issue of labor was one that companies improved upon the least, with only a .4 percentage change on the issue overall. Why is labor such a hot button issue for companies? Labor relations is all about power dynamics, and freedom of association and collective bargaining are meant to equalize what is an unequal relationship between management and workers. Many managers see this as a threat to their ability to run a business; after all, most managers would say that you can’t run a company by committee.

What does this have to do with forced labor? Well, trade unions and organized labor offer many benefits to management that go unrecognized. They can act as the alarm system for the company—workers usually know what’s happening in the organization at their level much quicker than management, especially if it is related to the workers or their work. Workers will likely know if food safety protocols are not being followed, if there is a child in the field, if someone is being harassed sexually, if someone is not being paid on time, if their passport has been taken or if they have had to pay outrageous fees to a recruiter or labor contractor.

It is notable that in the KnowTheChain report worker voice is severely lacking in company practice, with an average company score of only 14 out of 100. None of the companies analyzed by KnowTheChain disclose how they proactively communicate their grievance mechanism to supply chain workers, and only one company engages workers outside the workplace, thus ensuring an environment where workers are able to speak up openly. Further, it is worrying that four of the 20 largest companies do not include freedom of association in their supplier code of conduct.

Multinational companies should welcome their workers joining unions and should encourage their suppliers to do so as well. Good leadership means understanding that you can’t go it alone, that you need your workers to be part of creating a good business and not be antagonistic to it. This means allowing workers to have a say about what happens in the field, in the factory and even in headquarters.

Two recent reports by the Center for American Progress highlight the need for both greater unionization and worker voice in order to maintain the middle class, increase wages and benefits, close the gap on inequality and ensure overall worker well-being. Unfortunately, according to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and International Union of Food, Agriculture, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), the global agricultural workforce is among the least organized into trade unions. In addition to being among the most socially vulnerable, exposed to the poorest health and safety conditions and lacking in social protections, it is not surprising that forced labor is a high risk in the industry.

The food and beverage industry can do something about this:

1.Engage the IUF in an on-going and constructive dialogue;

2.Conduct human rights impact assessments on salient issues such as forced labor, including thorough interviewing of agricultural workers in supply chains;

3.Empower supply chain workers by educating them about their rights and relevant standards, engaging them outside their workplace, and providing grievance mechanisms and access to remedy;

4.Train suppliers on the benefits of worker voice, freedom of association, unionization, and grievance mechanisms; assess risks at potential and existing suppliers and give preferential treatment to farms that have good practices in place;

5.Stop lobbying against labor protections and encourage governments to support unionization.

Forced labor is a symptom of poverty, lack of education, and unequal power relationships between management and workers; when workers have a voice, they are able to advocate for better wages, benefits and conditions.

Irit Tamir, Oxfam America and Felicitas Weber, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre