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Migrant Workers Widespread in Food Supply Chain

By 3p Contributor

By Annabel Short

We live in a world on the move.  According to the UNHCR, the rate at which people are being forced to leave their homes (24 people a minute) is four times greater than a decade ago.  Meanwhile, even higher numbers are responding to the forces of globalization and choosing to migrate for work opportunities.  The ILO reports that there are over 150 million migrant workers globally.

Eleven percent of these individuals work in agriculture.  Competition within the global food industry means many rely on cheap labor on farms and in food-processing factories.  Migrant workers in all regions, many of whom are undocumented, are willing to work for far less than the local workforce.  Whatever the extent of xenophobia these workers may face in their host countries, the economics mean that they will still migrate for work, and unscrupulous labor brokers will take advantage, passing the savings on to corporations.

Within the U.S., for example, over 70 percent of farm workers are immigrants.  In this context, and amid rising anti-immigration-rhetoric, food companies need to acknowledge the large numbers of migrant workers in their supply chains – both on farms and in food-processing – and the specific vulnerabilities they face.  This includes racism and discrimination, but also hazardous working conditions, and at the worst extreme, situations of modern-day slavery.  The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has estimated that in the U.S. alone, around five percent at any given time are subject to forced labor: numbers in other countries can be much higher still.

A new benchmark by KnowTheChain of the world’s 20 largest food companies has found that while they are aware of the risks of forced labor through their supply chains, only a handful are taking action to address it.  Three areas in which food companies need to step up their game are recruitment, tracing their supply chains to the level of commodities, and worker voice.


It is through the recruitment process migrant workers are particularly at risk of falling into forced labor: having to pay fees for their jobs then working for long periods of time just to get to the point of paying off their debt.

A Wall Street journal exposé of conditions on palm-oil plantations in Malaysia supplying international companies, for example, included the story of Mr. Rubel, a young Bangladeshi man who was promised work opportunities in Malaysia.  After being smuggled in a fishing boat where he witnessed fellow migrants dying from lack of food and water, and after his father was forced to pay the smugglers $2500, he found himself working on a plantation, without being paid.

Recruitment was the lowest-scoring of the benchmark themes, with companies scoring an average of 10/100.  It is encouraging, however, that two of the companies in the benchmark, Unilever and Coca-Cola, have joined the “Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment” and adopted relevant practices to address this issue – others should follow suit.


Food companies have complex and fragmented supply chains, which creates challenges for oversight.  The benchmark found that while several companies have begun to trace their supply chains – an important step in identifying the risks of forced labor – this so far tends to be limited in scope to high-profile commodities such as palm oil and sugar.  Companies now need to extend their tracing efforts to other commodities where forced labor can still occur, such as beans, nuts and seafood.

Worker voice

One of the most effective ways to prevent and remedy situations of forced labor is to ensure that workers are able to organize and effectively raise complaints.  As the precedent-setting work of the Fair Food Program has highlighted, worker-driven, market-enforced human rights programs can be extremely powerful in driving tangible improvements in working conditions.  Yet worker voice was the second lowest-scoring theme in the benchmark, with limited examples of direct engagement with workers, effective access to grievance mechanisms, or steps to enable workers to organize in contexts where there are regulatory barriers to them doing so.

The industry has a responsibility to recognize migrant workers in their supply chain and treat them as more than a cheap supply of labor, taking practical steps to prevent them from being trapped in modern slavery.

Annabel Short is Deputy Director of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, based in the New York Office.  She overseas the Centre's work on labor rights and regional programs in Asia and the Middle East, working closely with the Centre's five researchers based in those regions.  The Resource Centre is one of the partner organizations in KnowTheChain, together with Humanity United, Verite, and Sustainalytics.

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