Food sector urged to follow Unilever and Nestlé on tackling slave labour

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Food sector urged to follow Unilever and Nestlé on tackling slave labour

Related tags Slavery

Food manufacturers have been urged to follow the lead of Nestlé and Unilever and take an integrated approach to tackling modern slavery in their supply chains.

In a report, released today (4 October), the CORE Coalition said that “top” companies – including large food and beverage manufacturers – “lack transparency”​ about the risks of modern slavery in their supply chains.

Under the UK Modern Slavery Act, all firms with an annual turnover exceeding £36m (€40.6m) were required to publish a slavery and human trafficking statement by 30 September this year. However, Marilyn Croser, director of the CORE Coalition, told FoodNavigator, the response has been “weak”​.

“Only 3000 companies have reported out of an estimated 9,000-11,000 covered by the Act, many of the reports are not signed by a company director on behalf of the board, and they tend to lack detail on key issues such as risks and due diligence,”​ she explained.

According to CORE, key ingredients represent a risk for food makers who may inadvertently source commodities produced using forced labour. “Our report looked at specific risks in the cocoa, palm oil and Assam tea supply chains where there is well-documented evidence of ​labour rights abuses. Risks in the seafood sector are also common knowledge,”​ Croser noted.

cocoa pods - RobertKacpura
Cocoa an 'at risk' commodity for modern slavery ©RobertKacpura/iStock

CORE found that chocolate companies Hershey, Ferrero and Lindt & Sprüngli do not provide information on forced labour in their statements on their cocoa supply chains. However, the corporate responsibility coalition stressed, all three companies have acknowledged in other publicly available documents that they source from West Africa. In this region, “child labour and forced labour are endemic in cocoa production”​, CORE claimed. Meanwhile, Mondelez International has not published a stand-alone statement.

Responding to the criticism, a spokesperson for Lindt insisted that the company is aware of and tackling the issue in its supply chain and stressed that its UK unit directed people to the corporation's statement on the subject.

"Lindt in the UK was criticized by CORE for not having mentioned risks in the supply chain. The statement, however, is held more on a general level with directing to further information disclosed on the company’s website.

"At Lindt & Sprüngli, we are fully aware of the child labor/forced labor risks in the cocoa sector in West Africa, and have therefore activities in place to reduce those risks. In order to make the statement more clear in terms of risk awareness, we will include more details in the next update."

Likewise, Hershey stressed that reporting on its commitments to responsible sourcing are detailed in its annual CSR report, which is produced at a corporate level. "Each year, we report publicly on our work to foster responsible sourcing of the ingredients we use in our products through our annual CSR Report.  From certification commitments and programs we support and participate in, to rigorous policies we have implemented to hold our partners in our sourcing supply chain accountable for meeting our high ethical standards, we share details of our work and approach each year in our report.  We also share our position and efforts to prevent illegal and forced child labor in our report,"​ a spokesperson for the company explained. 

In the report, Hershey stated it does not tolerate forced labour. "Suppliers must not utilize or benefit in any way from forced or compulsory labor nor utilize factories or subcontractors that force unpaid labor."

The spokesperson added: "In addition to our transparent reporting in our CSR Report, we share our actions to support a responsible, sustainable and ethical supply chain in our statement for the California Transparency Act and the United Kingdom Modern Slavery Act available on our website."

Unilever, Nestlé show best practice

Croser singled out two food companies – Nestlé and Unilever – as examples of best practice on slavery reporting.

“We recommend that other firms follow Nestle and Unilever in integrating their approach to tackling modern slavery into a broader human rights strategies. Those two companies also recognised that they need to take action to address labour rights issues in their supply chains and operations; this is key as modern slavery and forced labour are at the extreme end of a spectrum of abuses practices that must be addressed holistically,”​ Croser observed.

Nestlé reports on 11 key human rights risks in its business, seven relating to labour rights. Meanwhile, Unilever’s 2015 Human Rights Report notes that low minimum wages are an issue in many tea producing countries, CORE noted.

The corporate responsibility group also called out Mars for its transparent reporting. “Mars specifically acknowledges that severe human rights risks including forced labour may be present in the cocoa supply chain.”

According to Croser, transparency is an important tool in stamping out modern slavery and human rights abuses in the food supply chain. But it is also just a first step, she suggests.

“Transparency can drive up corporate standards and allow investors and consumers to make informed choices about where to put their money. But companies and governments need to work together to address the systemic issues driving the problem. Everyone knows that cocoa prices and wages on tea estates in Assam are too low. The share of value going to producers and workers has dropped over the last few decades and is trapping people in poverty. All actors – governments, buyers, retailers, processors, investors – need to come together and develop solutions.”

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