Meghan Quinlan
Vice President, Food and Agriculture, ELEVATE
Sung In Marshall
Associate Director, Worker Engagement, ELEVATE

Published: 25 October 2020

Published: 25 October 2020

Meghan Quinlan - Vice President, Food and Agriculture, ELEVATE
Sung In Marshall - Associate Director, Worker Engagement, ELEVATE

Labor Risks in Food and Beverage

Surfacing risk in agricultural supply chains: Lack of access to grievance mechanism silences worker voice

The journey that any food or beverage product takes from farm-to-fork is often complex and faces a number of traceability challenges. This is despite the recent growth in consumer demand for transparency in raw material origins/sourcing and confidence in ethical labor practices, animal welfare, and other concerns. At all stages of the food and beverage supply chain – but particularly at the farm and grower level – many workers are vulnerable to poor working conditions, health and safety hazards, and in extreme cases, forced labor.

COVID-19 has increased the human rights risks for workers

The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed and stretched food supply chains, putting already vulnerable workers at even greater risk of labor rights violations due to their “essential worker” status. Across the globe, there have been reported cases of exploitative working conditions, including over 25,000 tea workers in India facing unpaid wages, migrant workers at meat processing facilities in the United States threatened with termination if they fail to appear for work and migrant workers on Spanish farms living in housing without basic sanitation. Cases such as these pose reputational and operational risks to companies in the food and beverage industry, an industry that is dealing with unprecedented business continuity risks.

Grievance mechanisms are an integral part of business continuity planning and human rights due diligence. In addition to providing remote agriculture workers with a communications channel, an effective grievance mechanism helps companies (1) identify, monitor, and manage risks in their supply chains (2) remedy any issues that may arise and lead to supply chain disruption, and (3) collect actionable data to avoid future risks from becoming a future reality.

“Grievance mechanisms can supplement an audit-based approach to supply chain management, which is critical not only because they are accessible 365 days a year, but also because currently most auditing programs do not reach all the way down to the farm level.”
– Meghan Quinlan, Vice President, Food and Agriculture

Effective grievance mechanisms are still missing

Earlier this month, KnowTheChain (KTC) – a benchmarking resource aimed at companies and investors to help them better understand and address forced labor risks in global supply chains – released its annual benchmark report for the food and beverage industry. The benchmark evaluated 43 of the world’s largest retailers and food and beverage companies on their performance in addressing forced labor risks in their supply chains. One of the areas of poorest performance in the benchmark is worker voice, and in particular, the use of grievance mechanisms.

According to KTC benchmark results, 29 out of 43 companies (67%) acknowledge they have a grievance mechanism for their suppliers’ workers but only 10 companies (23%) provided evidence these mechanisms were effective and being used by workers. This is a worrying statistic because it suggests that very few workers are aware of or trust the provided platforms. Low adoption rates such as these are not uncommon. According to data collected through the Laborlink by ELEVATE worker sentiment surveys, only 1% of respondents indicated they trust using a helpline at the workplace to raise a suggestion or complaint. Only 2% of survey respondents indicated that a trusted channel exists for them to raise complaints or grievances. Providing a trusted channel of communication to receive worker voice is a key component in an effective grievance mechanism.

What is an effective grievance mechanism?

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (GP 31) defines eight key effectiveness criteria for grievance mechanisms: (1) legitimate;  (2) accessible; (3) predictable; (4) equitable; (5) transparent; (6) rights-compatible, (7) a source of continuous learning; and (8) based on engagement and dialogue.

Our own experience working with key partners across multiple industries to establish trusted worker reporting channels has validated and affirmed these criteria in the following ways:

  • Bangladesh: Since 2014, ELEVATE has partnered with Clear Voice, Phulki, and Laborlink by ELEVATE to operate the Amader Kotha Worker Helpline in Bangladesh, which provides workers with a mechanism to report and resolve safety and other concerns in the ready-made garment sector. Accessibility is a core feature of the Amader Kotha helpline and features a toll-free number for workers to call during key hours.
  • Malaysia: In 2018, Nestlé and Sime Darby Plantation partnered with ELEVATE to expand the Responsible Business Alliance’s ‘Suara Kami’ Helpline from manufacturing to Malaysia’s palm oil sector. This helpline also utilizes independent NGO operators and has invested extensively in on-the-ground training and awareness-raising with palm oil workers.
  • The Americas: Similarly, together with the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), ELEVATE recently launched Conecta, the first external reporting channel for EFI-Certified farms in the Americas (United States, Mexico, and Canada) with the potential to scale-up to other growers in the industry. Conecta’s co-creation process centered on the engagement between farm workers and management and ensured open dialogue took place on the design and implementation of the reporting channel.

ELEVATE’s WorkerApp, launched in July 2020, also provides an important and technology-driven solution for providing real-time communication with workers. The app harnesses accessible technology to simplify two-way communication between supplier-level management and workers, including establishing a feedback loop to report issues and anonymously or publicly submit feedback on specific topics and issues.

An accessible, transparent, and trusted channel for worker voices to be heard can help create lasting connections and strengthen not only relationships between workers/employers and suppliers/companies – but can strengthen the supply chain itself and make it more resilient.   And a resilient supply chain is paramount for business success in times of a global.

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These blogs are written by ELEVATE staff members or associates and the views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of ELEVATE.

Photo credit: Brent Stirton

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