Identifying and Eliminating Labor Risk for a More Regenerative Global Food Supply

August 12, 2021
Identifying and Eliminating Labor Risk for a More Regenerative Global Food Supply

Agricultural workers make up nearly one-third of the global workforce. They are also one of the most vulnerable populations in the world, more likely to be discriminated against, exploited, abused, impoverished, and food insecure–a cruel irony that the people responsible for growing and harvesting our food often cannot afford to eat it. Especially vulnerable among this population are women, indigenous groups, and migrant workers.

Risks associated with agricultural labor

Farmworkers face some of the most grueling working conditions of any trade, which are only becoming harsher as climate change makes for hotter summers and more frequent natural disasters. In addition to the extreme physical demands of agricultural work are the threats of injury, death, chemical exposure, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, wage theft, permanent debt, lack of medical coverage or benefits of any kind, and most recently exposure to COVID-19.

The United States agricultural system offers safer working conditions than the vast majority of locations worldwide — and yet, like most of the colonized world, was still founded on the forced labor of enslaved people and relies on exploitative labor and racist policies to this day. 98% of farmland in America is owned by White people but agricultural workers are overwhelmingly people of color, more than 80 percent of farm laborers in the United States are Latinx and at least 47% of crop workers are undocumented. Undocumented workers are especially at risk because they have no formal recourse for reporting unsafe or abusive working conditions and are under constant threat of deportation.

Who should be responsible for improving labor conditions?

Many labor risks in the food supply are systemic on a global scale which makes it an overwhelming problem to address, to say the least. After all, what can one company do about the way that a landowner in West Africa treats the laborers that harvest their cacao? Isn’t that the government’s role?

The answer is yes, it should be the government’s role to enact labor protections and enforce them, but the unfortunate reality is that in many regions this kind of legislation is either impossible to enforce or unlikely to be passed in the first place. Companies, however, are much more agile and fast-acting when it comes to immediate consequences for labor abuses in their supply systems.

Though many companies are starting to conduct labor risk assessments on their supply, they are often hampered by a lack of visibility and transparency about where things come from. Especially when a company uses thousands of different ingredients procured through a complex supply system, it’s a monumental task to keep track of their origin and how they are produced. While internal validations are valuable and necessary, to be thorough in eradicating labor abuses in a supply system, third-party validations are often more effective at identifying the likelihood of worker mistreatment.

HowGood’s approach to measuring labor risk in the supply system

HowGood’s research model examines the probability and extent of labor abuse using two primary metrics developed from a comprehensive set of data sources: Working Conditions, and Labor Risk Exposure.

Working Conditions looks at the probable risks faced by the workers who produce a given ingredient from a given location and the severity of those risks. For example, sugar cane that is grown in Brazil may have very different working conditions than sugar cane grown in Louisiana. Similarly, the working conditions associated with different ingredients grown in the same region could vary considerably, such as coffee beans vs bananas in Honduras. This sort of insight is needed to make corporate ESG proclamations such as, “we guarantee no risk of slave labor in our supply chain.”

Labor Risk Exposure takes into account both the working conditions and the number of workers affected by them. This helps contextualize the scale at which labor abuses may be happening. Unmechanized, historically plantation-driven crops such as palm oil are major contributors to high labor risk. Ingredients sourced from very poor or recently politically unstable regions also carry a considerable risk of exploitation because these populations are extremely vulnerable and therefore at a very high risk of severe forms of labor abuse; likewise, they would score poorly on Labor Risk Exposure due to both the severity of the conditions faced by worker, and the number of people impacted.

Numerating labor abuses in our food system is a delicate and supremely difficult task, and it is not HowGood’s intent to attempt to quantify human suffering. It is our goal to collect data as usefully as possible without dehumanizing the people who are at the ends of our supply systems with the hope that the information can be used to avoid future abuses.

How to identify and avoid ingredients associated with labor risk

Companies can start by taking a comprehensive look at their supply system and identifying the source ingredients that have the highest risk of abuse. Short of establishing direct relationships with individual suppliers and conducting periodic farm visits, (which would be ideal but is not always feasible), the factors that impact Working Conditions and Labor Risk Exposure criteria the most are, in this order:

  1. What the ingredient is
  2. Where the ingredient is grown
  3. Whether there are labor certifications like Fair Trade implemented

Based on HowGood’s research, the most effective way for developers to decrease the likelihood of labor abuses related to a product is to either change the ingredient altogether, change the region where the ingredient is produced, or in some cases apply a labor certification requirement.

Three criteria to determine where you can have the biggest impact

This work is remarkably complex and, therefore, must be ongoing. That being said, there are ways to immediately identify a) the ingredients in your portfolio that have the highest potential for labor abuses, and b) which of those ingredients are affecting your overall impact the most. Prioritizing those ingredients as part of your action plan is a good place to start. Here are three aspects to consider as first steps for identifying where a sourcing change could have the biggest impact, using palm oil as an example:

  1. What is the average inclusion percentage or amount of palm oil in your product formulas?
  2. How many products contain palm oil across your portfolio?
  3. What is the annual sales volume of each product that contains palm oil, or the total metric tons purchased annually?

Once you have identified the ingredient that will make the biggest impact and you have put a plan into place to address it, your work is not done. A regenerative supply means continuing to make improvements that go beyond merely reducing harm or providing a minimum living wage. It must ensure socio-economic stability, development, empowerment, and even transformation for the people who grow our food.

Recent guidance from the EU lays out due diligence guidelines for companies seeking not only to lessen but to eliminate labor abuses in their supply systems.

“Measures to address risk may differ depending on whether the company seeks to disengage with suppliers or business partners and avoid the identified risks of forced labor; or stay engaged to prevent or mitigate the adverse impacts of forced labor practices, in terms of influencing government policy and factory hiring practices.” (6)

They propose it’s the company’s responsibility to reach out to producers once they are aware of labor risk issues in order to influence the landowners/operators to implement better labor practices. Otherwise, it leaves a void that may be colonized by more bad actors.

Taking responsibility for our supply systems

“Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, and in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” — Abraham Heschel

Simply put, companies have a moral obligation to examine the supply systems that they profit from to ensure that people are not being exploited in the process. Reckless sourcing also poses a clear business risk–consumer consciousness is at an all-time high, people are paying attention to companies’ sourcing practices and they are not interested in buying products implicated in labor abuse.

Doing the work to engage with your suppliers to mitigate labor risk also builds stronger business relationships, fosters resiliency in the supply system, and minimizes the likelihood of supply chain disruptions.

“Regenerative” agriculture cannot be regenerative without protecting and uplifting the people who grow our food.

Conversations about sustainability and regenerative agriculture frequently center environmental risks like biodiversity loss, heavy chemical use, and climate change. While these issues urgently need to be addressed, too often the focus is on how the food is grown and not the people who grow it. It’s simply not enough for companies to source ingredients with a reduced environmental impact without consideration for the quality of life of the people who grow them.

“I’d rather eat a [conventional] tomato picked by fairly treated labor than an organic tomato picked by a slave.” — Eric Schlosser