In today’s economy, the goods we consume are often produced far from where they are purchased, successively changing hands along complex and opaque corporate supply chains. The International Labour Organization estimates that across these supply chains, there are approximately 24.9 million victims of forced labor in the world.

Where forced labor risks are not addressed, they can result in serious legal, reputational, and financial repercussions for companies. Investors are uniquely positioned to help companies recognize the importance of managing this risk, and are increasingly using their voice to do so.

KnowTheChain is a resource for companies and investors to understand and address forced labor risks. We believe that companies and investors can be a powerful force for improving the lives of people who labor in their global supply chains.

Through benchmarking current corporate practices and providing practical resources that enable companies to operate more transparently and responsibly, we aim to drive corporate action while also providing considerations for investor action. KnowTheChain recently evaluated  38 of the largest global food and beverage companies on their forced labor policies and practices.

The 2018 Food and Beverage Benchmark Findings Report finds that while many of the companies evaluated may have policies and commitments in place, the majority do not provide evidence that their policies and practices are being effectively implemented. Without evidence of implementation of these policies, companies may be unprepared to respond to an egregious abuse uncovered in their supply chain by an NGO, trade union, or reporter.

Agriculture workers are particularly vulnerable

Human Rights Watch tells the story of Saw Win, a Burmese migrant worker smuggled into Thailand on the promise of a food processing job for US$4.50 a day. He was sold to brokers who were controlling work crews at fishing piers in a Thai port town. Initially, he worked on a trawler with no pay for three months. Upon returning to the port town, he was locked in a room for three days before being sold again to another boat. Eventually, Saw Win escaped by jumping overboard near the Malaysian coast and returned to land for the first time in two years.

Men and women seeking gainful employment in the agriculture industry are particularly vulnerable to exploitation – whether through force, fraud or coercion – and are often made to work for little or no pay, cut off from their homes or families. As the food and beverage sector increasingly pushes agricultural work into more rural areas to accommodate its land-intensive activities, it’s exacerbating the remote nature of the work and putting workers at greater risk.

How are companies scoring?

Unilever, which was the top scoring company in KnowTheChain’s first food and beverage sector benchmark in 2016, remains at the top with a score of 69 out of 100. Kellogg took second place with a score of 66.

Five companies score below 10 out of 100. None of them have a publicly available supplier code of conduct, nor do they take any action on worker voice and recruitment.

Scores by theme

The average score across the benchmark remains low, at just 30 out of 100, indicating that companies need to take further action to address forced labor risks across all tiers of their supply chains.

Overall, companies scored the lowest on indicators of worker voice and recruitment, suggesting that little or no action is being taken to listen to, engage with, or empower laborers across supply chains. These themes have the most direct impact on the lives of workers, and concerned investors can ask companies about their practices.

Improvements are (slowly) being made

Comparing the 2018 benchmark to its 2016 counterpart, we can see that more companies now have policies prohibiting recruitment fees, and in general, companies are providing more substantive examples of how their policies are used in practice. Of the 19 companies benchmarked in both 2016 and 2018, 17 disclosed additional steps taken to address forced labor risks.

It’s encouraging to see some companies making additional commitments since the 2016 benchmark, but progress for workers is not moving fast enough. Companies across the board must do better to make demonstrable improvements for workers.

Investors are taking action

In addition to scoring and ranking companies, this report provides good practice examples and recommendations for companies as well as considerations for investor action.

Investors representing more than $3 trillion in assets have signed the KnowTheChain Investor Statement, which lays out expectations for how companies should address forced labor risks, in-line with international standards and existing human rights due diligence tools.

Investors may wish to integrate KnowTheChain’s findings into their investment decision-making and active ownership practices. Shareholder advocacy organization As You Sow introduced a resolution on behalf of Monster Beverage shareholders, citing its 0/100 score in our 2016 benchmark report and asking the company to address the lack of transparency regarding slavery and human trafficking in its supply chain. (Monster scored 4/100 this year.)

Through responsible purchasing practices, strategic collaborations, and extended standards on issues such as ethical recruitment to lower-tier suppliers, companies can positively impact working conditions across their supply chains.

Investors who hold any of the companies KnowTheChain has benchmarked can use KnowTheChain to engage their portfolio. For each company in the benchmark, KnowTheChain has created a two-page summary identifying what steps the company can take. These company scorecards can provide a clear path for engagement for investors. Investors can further ask how companies are working to ensure migrant workers are not exploited, and how they engage with workers in their supply chains to empower them to exercise their labor rights, while ensuring that an early warning system is in place for when abuses occur.

KnowTheChain will be releasing a similar benchmark report on the apparel and footwear industry in the very near future, and we hope the audience for this research continues to grow.