Evaluating Efforts to Address Forced Labour in the Food and Beverage Industry

6 November 2018
Research Innovation

Kilian Moote  | Project Director, KnowTheChain

Men and women seeking opportunities in the agriculture industry are particularly vulnerable to exploitation—whether through force, fraud or coercion—and are often made to work for little or no pay, working in remote locations and/or foreign countries where they may not know their rights or speak the language. As the food and beverage sector increasingly pushes agricultural work into more rural areas to accommodate its land-intensive activities, it’s exacerbating the remote nature of the work and putting workers at greater risk.

Human Rights Watch tells the story of Saw Win, a Burmese migrant worker smuggled into Thailand on the promise of a food processing job for USD 4.50 a day. He was sold to brokers who were controlling work crews at fishing piers in a Thai port town. Initially, he worked on a trawler with no pay for three months. Upon returning to the port town, he was locked in a room for three days before being sold again to another boat. Eventually, Saw Win escaped by jumping overboard near the Malaysian coast and returned to land for the first time in two years.

To better understand what companies are doing to address the risk of forced labour in their food and beverage supply chains, KnowTheChain evaluated 38 of the largest global companies on their forced labour policies and practices. The 2018 Food and Beverage Benchmark Findings Report finds that while many of the companies evaluated may have policies and commitments in place, the majority do not provide evidence of those policies in practice.


Animation of KnowTheChain 2018 Food & Beverage Benchmark

Companies were graded on how well their disclosed policies and practices reflected their commitment and good governance; traceability and risk assessment; purchasing practices; recruitment practices; worker voice engagement; monitoring practices; and remedy when incidents are brought to light. These themes were developed to capture the key areas where companies need to take action to eradicate forced labour from their supply chains.

Companies across the board must do better to make demonstrable improvements for workers.

There are a total of 23 indicators across the seven themes. Each theme is weighted equally and determines the company’s overall benchmark score on a scale from 0 to 100.

Unilever, the top scoring company in KnowTheChain’s first food and beverage sector benchmark in 2016, remains at the top with a score of 69 out of 100. Kellogg and Coca-Cola follow, with scores of 65 and 62.

Many of the higher scoring companies in the benchmark have commercial relationships with lower performing companies. Consumer brands are more aware and conscious of labour rights issues, given their direct relationship with the public. They tend to score higher than large suppliers that are insulated from consumer pressure. The challenge for these larger consumer companies is how best to work with their suppliers to cascade standards down the supply chain to reach the most vulnerable workers, who tend to operate at the input or commodity level.

The average score across the benchmark remains very low, at just 30 out of 100, indicating that companies need to take further action to address forced labour risks across all tiers of their supply chains.

Overall, companies scored the lowest on indicators of worker voice and recruitment, suggesting that little or no action is being taken to listen to, engage with or empower workers across supply chains.

However, some improvements can be seen when comparing the 2018 benchmark to its 2016 counterpart. More companies now have policies prohibiting recruitment fees, and in general, companies are providing more substantive examples of how their policies are used in practice. Of the 19 companies benchmarked in both 2016 and 2018, 17 disclosed additional steps taken to address forced labour risks.

To capture emerging good practices and respond to the evolving and dynamic nature of labour risks in modern supply chains, KnowTheChain reviews and, where applicable, updates the indicators in the methodology ahead of every benchmark. In 2018, our methodology was strengthened, making it more difficult for companies to achieve the scores they earned in 2016.


Stacks of freshly caught fish/KnowTheChain.

Forced labour remains a major problem in the production of popular food and beverage products. It’s encouraging to see some companies making additional commitments since the 2016 benchmark, but progress for workers is not moving fast enough. Companies across the board must do better to make demonstrable improvements for workers.

In addition to scoring and ranking companies, this report provides good practice examples and recommendations for companies. It also evaluates corporate commitments and compliance with relevant regulations and provides considerations for investor action.

Models like the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility model, which focuses on enabling workers to protect and enforce their own rights, have demonstrated that tangible improvements of working conditions in agriculture are possible. We believe companies and investors can be a powerful force in changing the conditions under which people work in their global supply chains, and that documenting their progress and opportunities for improvement play a role in that effort. To that end, we will be releasing a new benchmark report on the apparel and footwear industry in the very near future and, in the meantime, we hope the audience for this research continues to grow.

Kilian Moote is the Project Director for KnowTheChain.

This article has been prepared by Kilian Moote as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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