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Report: Food and Beverage Giants Not Doing Enough to Fight Forced Labor

Grant Whittington headshotWords by Grant Whittington
Leadership & Transparency
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International food and beverage giants are advancing their commitment to ending forced labor in their supply chains, but a new report from KnowTheChain states that all of the 38 companies analyzed (listed at the end of this story) still have a lot of room for improvement.

The report, KnowTheChain’s second food and beverage benchmark since it was launched in 2016, set out to answer one question: are the largest food and beverage companies in the world doing enough to eradicate forced labor from their supply chains?

While there have been substantial improvements made toward addressing forced labor since its last study, the answer is largely no, the companies are not doing enough. Companies are slow to improve issues with recruitment and engagement with workers across their supply chains; and they are limiting their impact by placing special focus in commodities where labor abuses receive the most media attention (as in palm oil), rather than casting a wider, all-encompassing net.

The report ranks firms on a scale from 0 to 100 and judges companies’ policies and processes against seven themes:


  1. Commitment and Governance – a company’s commitment to address forced labor

  2. Traceability and Risk Assessment – the extent to which a company demonstrates an understanding of its suppliers and workforce

  3. Purchasing Practices – the extent to which a company adopts responsible purchasing practices and integrates supply chain standards

  4. Recruitment – a company’s approach to reducing the risk of exploitation of supply chain workers by recruitment agencies

  5. Worker Voice – the extent to which a company engages with workers in its supply chain

  6. Monitoring – a company’s process for auditing suppliers

  7. Remedy – a company’s corrective action plan and a company’s ability to ensure remedy
Unilever (69/100), Kellogg Co. (66/100), The Coca-Cola Company (62/100), Tesco (60/100) and Nestle (58/100) were the top five scorers. Unilever was the top-scoring company in the 2016 study as well, displaying an industry-leading initiative to address the exploitation of migrant workers. Kellogg’s dramatically increased its score since the benchmark in 2016, more than doubling its score from 32/100 to 66/100 in just two short years. Kellogg’s now provides training to its suppliers on ethical recruitment and migrant workers’ rights.

The report considers a company average if it scores a 30 out of 100. An average company typically discloses a supplier code of conduct incorporating international standards prohibiting forced labor, a process for enforcing that code through many levels of its supply chain, employee training on forced labor, a grievance mechanism for its workers and an audit process to assess suppliers.

To improve its score, the report recommends that average-scoring companies provide training to suppliers on forced labor risks, create stronger recruitment monitoring mechanisms, support and empower workers to understand their rights and appropriately market and encourage the use of grievance mechanisms for workers.

While the average company score has improved slightly from 30 in 2016 to 33 in 2018, companies continue to score lowest in worker voice and recruitment, the two themes with the largest direct impact on workers’ lives.

Just 18 of the 38 companies analyzed have policies in place to prohibit worker-paid recruitment fees in their supply chain. None of the companies could provide evidence that workers were reimbursed for fees paid to a recruiter. On top of poor recruitment improvements, the study found that companies are demonstrating very little effort to engage with workers in their supply chain.

The study on workers rights is tackling an important and timely issue. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 24.9 million forced laborers in the world. The ILO identifies 11 indicators of forced labor:


  • Abuse of vulnerability

  • Deception

  • Restriction of movement

  • Isolation

  • Physical and sexual violence

  • Intimidation and threats

  • Retention of identity documents

  • Withholding of wages

  • Debt bondage

  • Abusive working and living conditions

  • Excessive overtime
Forced labor is particularly prevalent to those working in the agriculture sector. Agriculture work is largely seasonal or temporary, leaving workers with unstable sources of income. Further, much of the pay generated from agriculture work is based on outputs, and outputs can be largely unpredictable due to external factors like weather or theft. Workers may also be reluctant to voice wage complaints because they fear voicing their opinion could get them fired.

“Forced labor remains a major problem in the production of popular food and beverage products.” Kilian Moore, projector director for KnowTheChain, wrote in a press release. “It’s encouraging to see increased companies working to address forced labor… but progress for workers is not moving fast enough.”

Image credit: USDA

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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