Forced Labor Still Looms in IT, Food and Beverages

A child laborer in China.

When it comes to the use of slavery and other forms of forced labor in the garment industry, consumers aren’t afraid to voice their objections.

And according to a new report by KnowTheChain, that advocacy has been instrumental in reducing the use of forced labor in the industry.  Companies like HP and Adidas have heard the condemnations loud and clear and have worked hard to stop the use of slavery in the supply chains they utilize.

But when it comes to the use of forced labor in other industry sectors, like food and beverage, reducing forced labor hasn’t been as successful.

“This is reflective of the level of media attention and civil society pressure companies in each of the sectors have received,” the website reported, which in this case, has been much lower when it comes to how seafood is harvested or the cacao for our chocolate bars is grown.

KnowTheChain’s 2017 report on forced labor in the global economy is the organization’s second annual report. Established in 2013 by Humanity United in partnership with Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Sustainalytics and Verité, it aims to shine a spotlight on a topic that until recently, hasn’t garnered quite enough attention in the media – and consequently, in the minds of many of North America’s budget-conscious consumers.

A migrant agricultural worker in Greece.

The report looks at seven key categories across three main industry sectors and rates the level of success that each sector has shown in eradicating forced labor from its supply chain. The researchers found that of the three sectors, food and beverage and information and communications technology faced the greatest challenges in ensuring that slavery and forced labor weren’t used in the procurement and production of materials and products.

This isn’t exactly a new finding when it comes to the tech industry. TriplePundit has reported a number of times on how forced labor has shaped the industry, and the efforts that a select number of companies are making to wipe abusive labor tactics from their supply chains.

But what is new about KnowTheChain’s investigations, is its ability to pinpoint just where the abuse is most virulent in each sector.

Information and communications, for example, gained moderately high marks for commitment and governance, and moderate scores for the kinds of monitoring the industry receives. It also received a moderate score for its success in eradicating forced labor from the procurement process. But tech companies scored low marks when it came to workers’ rights: guaranteeing that workers’ had the ability to organize, submit grievances and express opinions about how they are treated.

HP scored the highest marks in that sector, but it still received moderately low marks when it came to recruitment and workers’ right to voice.

Food and beverage companies scored even worse when it came to recruitment, largely due to the lack of oversight when it comes to migrant workers and seasonal laborers both in the US and abroad. It also scored poorly when it came to ensuring workers’ rights were observed when it came to its procurement chain.

That’s not to say that all companies scored the same in these problem areas. In the food and beverage sector, Unilever scored the highest, showcasing efforts that we have talked about before: its commitment to eradicating forced labor from the industry, integration of that commitment into the supply chain, risk assessments and coming up with corrective action plans to provide remedy in its efforts.

Textile workers organizing for better working conditions in El Salvador.

In fact, coming up with remedies seemed to be a hallmark for those companies that could demonstrate their commitment to eradicating the use of slavery and abuse from the industry. Adidas, H&M, Unilever and HP all had corrective action plans in place and were working on remedy programs.

KnowTheChain also made some astute observations in its report. One of them we’ve heard before: Companies are often more proactive in monitoring and addressing forced labor issues in first-tier suppliers than those further down the chain. That’s a problem when it comes to stopping slavery and abuse in the tech supply chain, because materials can often pass through many hands before they get to the final manufacturer.

But there’s some bright spots, as well, says the organizations.

While many companies are still taking steps that are far too small to make an appreciable difference in their supply chains, say the writers, “it is encouraging that a number of companies across sectors have joined the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment (thus committing to the ‘Employer Pays’ Principle) and that some industry associations are starting to take action.”

And that’s important because it means that KnowTheChain’s message isn’t just being heard by its consumer and investor readership, but the companies that hold the most power in eradicating forced labor from their supply chains.

 

Flickr images: Seven Xu; NoBorder Network; International Union League

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Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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