Did Slaves Produce Your Food? | Civil Eats

Did Slaves Produce Your Food?

New report says 20 of the largest food and beverage companies need to do more to keep forced labor out of their supply chains.


Recent, high-profile coverage of the global seafood industry’s horrific and rampant slavery problem caught many consumers by surprise. But, as a new report found, those stories are neither new nor unusual in the food industry as a whole.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), almost 21 million people worldwide are currently being held against their will and coerced to work under threats of intimidation, violence, economic or immigration status reprisal. The ILO’s latest estimate is that more than 3.5 million people worldwide now work under forced labor conditions in agriculture (including fishing and forestry). This means that forced labor has played a role in the supply chains of many of the most popular food and drinks.

Know The Chain (KTC), a nonprofit focused on corporate transparency, investigated how the 20 largest food and beverage companies are addressing this issue. Its new report found that most need to do far more to keep forced labor out of their supply chains.

In fact, scoring the 20 companies on various criteria for a possible high score of 100, KTC reports that, “Companies tend to score low across all themes assessed, with an average overall score of 30/100.” In other words, most of the food and beverage giants failed to get a passing grade.

Scoring highest—but with grades that would not rise above a D­—were Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Nestlé (see graphic below). Companies in the bottom third included ConAgra, Tyson Foods, and Kraft Heinz. Three of the four companies that scored less than 15/100 are headquartered in the U.S.: Tyson Foods, Kraft Heinz, and Monster Beverage, which scored a rock bottom 0/100.screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-3-06-47-pm

When contacted about the report, companies that responded chose to highlight policies that address the problem. Only a few alluded to the actual existence of forced labor situations.

An Enormous Problem

More than a third of the world’s approximately 10.7 million forced labor victims who are not doing domestic work are working in agriculture. While forced labor is most common in agriculture in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, the ILO estimates that some 360,000 people are forced to work on farms in Latin America.

About 530,000 do so in developed economies, which include the U.S. and European countries. And while great progress has been made in eliminating forced labor in U.S. agriculture through efforts like the Coalition of Imokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, forced labor situations still exist here. According to the KTC report, an estimated 5 percent of U.S. farmworkers are victims of forced labor.

Also significant is the fact that food companies generate significant profits by using forced labor. The ILO estimates that forced labor in agriculture generates approximately $9 billion in annual profits. The ILO explains that while their conservative estimate of 3.5 million forced labor victims may sound high, it’s likely given that in “many countries, agricultural work is largely informal, and legal protection of workers is weak.”

This includes people working to grow cocoa, coffee, nuts, soybeans, sunflowers, and sugarcane in Africa and Latin America, and rice in Africa and India. It includes people harvesting palm oil in Asia, and fish and shellfish in Africa and Asia. It also includes people working on Latin American cattle farms and Thai poultry farms. Migrant and seasonal workers, in places like Europe and the U.S., are often working against their will. Apples in the United Kingdom and strawberries in Germany are among crops that have been recently shown to be picked by victims of forced labor.

Walking the Talk on Traceability, Accountability, and Standards

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As KTC project director Kilian Moote told Civil Eats, the report is based on public disclosure—what these companies make public about their policies and practices—rather than on investigative reporting or on-site audits. What’s actually happening, Moote acknowledges, “is challenging to verify at an individual site, let alone at a global level.” That said, KTC took a thorough look at what these 20 food and beverage giants have published about their policies on accountability, standards, and traceability when it comes to hiring practices throughout their supply chains.

Moote acknowledges that the report simply offers a snapshot—but he adds that it’s an important one aimed at pushing companies toward greater and more comprehensive transparency throughout their supply chains. “To think that any country is immune to the problem of forced labor,” would be wrong, he says. “Hopefully this report can help companies rethink that.”screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-3-08-11-pm

Here’s what they found:

Most companies have begun to trace their supply chains but only oversee pieces of the chain. Over half the companies scored look closely at the source of their palm oil. A few also trace cocoa, soy, and sugar. Yet most fail to closely examine other ingredients at risk of using forced labor victims—such as nuts, beans, and seafood.

Most companies have standards in their contracts with suppliers that include a ban on forced labor. But only five companies actually assess risks of forced labor being used by potential suppliers. And none publicly provided evidence that they’d taken steps to reduce these risks by changing their purchasing practices—such as moving away from short-term contracts and pushing for the lowest possible prices, which can mean paying workers by the piece rather than by the hour.

Recruiters and third-party subcontractors are often the source of the worst labor abuses, because they provide the original company an extra layer of protection from criticism by removing the contact with the actual workers from their purview. All 20 companies that ILO examined scored low on this front; not a single one requires direct employment and most work through subcontractors and middlemen. Only two companies require their suppliers to audit recruiters and only seven require that no employment or other fees be charged to workers during any recruitment process throughout their supply chains.

Civil Eats contacted 10 of the 20 companies the report evaluated: Archer Daniels Midland, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, PespiCo, Tysons Foods, and Unilever. Eight responded and three, General Mills, Nestlé, and Tysons, said they hadn’t yet seen the report.

Unilever, the company that received the report’s highest score, said in a statement, “We are pleased with the result of the scorecard but recognize that both Unilever, and the industry as a whole, need to work much more closely with suppliers and partners to achieve real change.” The company said it would “remain focused on increasing due diligence and building awareness and capacity in prevention, identification and, where necessary, remediation.” It also said it would “continue to partner with initiatives including the CGF Call to Action on Forced Labour and the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment.”

Coca-Cola’s director of global workplace rights, Brent Wilton, said in a statement, “We are aware that especially unskilled labor and migrant workers have little social protection and are vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking.” He pointed to the fact that the company has evaluated forced labor risks on farms in countries like Guatemala and Honduras, and committed to ensuring, “that workers have access to their personal identity documents and do not have to pay recruitment fees.” The company also said efforts like KTC “can help drive improvements across our industry.”

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Kellogg’s chief sustainability officer, Diane Holdorf said via email that the company (which scored only 32 points out of the possible 100) is “committed to respecting human rights in accordance with international standards” and is “working across our company and our supply chain to increase transparency and visibility to identify, elevate, and remediate human rights risks.”

And Tyson Foods, while not familiar with KTC or the report, said it has “programs and policies in place to help make sure our operations and suppliers are operating responsibly,” including a supplier code of conduct, a toll-free number, and web-based helplines that employees and contract workers in their supply chain can contact 24/7.

The Know the Chain report is primarily focused on influencing companies and investors, who may begin to see forced labor as an investment risk, says Moote. But that doesn’t mean that consumers can’t engage with the findings.

“We’d love to see organizations that are more oriented around consumers use this data,” he said. And he added, “Raising anybody’s consciousness about what you’re consuming from a social and environmental standpoint is really important.”


Elizabeth Grossman was a senior reporter for Civil Eats from 2014 to 2017, where she focused on environmental and science issues. She is the author of Chasing Molecules, High Tech Trash, Watershed and other books. Her work appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic News, The Guardian, The Intercept, Scientific American, Environmental Health Perspectives, Yale e360, Ensia, High Country News, The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, and Mother Jones. She passed away in July 2017, leaving behind a legacy of dedication to her mission of journalism that supports and protects people and the planet. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Susan Dietrich
    You might have undermined your story by quickly switched from calling it slavery to the more benign euphamism "forced labor,."
  2. Paul
    The author says "Migrant and seasonal workers in the US and EU are often working against their will" in one sentence, then mentions an estimated rate of 5% in the U.S.

    5% does not equal "often" for most people, especially when it is an estimate rather than a proven statistic. It is better described as "rare" or "infrequent". Forced labor may be a big problem in other countries, but it is not in the U.S.

    As a farmer, I would really appreciate it if Civil Eats used greater care in the language it uses when making accusations like this. 95% of workers on farms in the U.S. are working there of their own free will. That is the vast, overwhelming majority and this fact should be recognized and contrasted with agriculture overseas.
  3. Jason Freeman
    great article. however we need to up the dialogue. why didn't you give a plug to companies that are doing things right, like Equal Exchange and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps? whenever journalists expose exploitation you need to communicate to your readers some companies that are not exploitative.

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