Forced labor in supply line still a worry

Companies hope safeguards help prevent exploitation

Food and beverage companies ship tons of products around the world and rely on a network of suppliers to do so. Whether those suppliers use forced labor is more difficult to nail down.

Corporate codes of conduct dissuade and state and federal laws prohibit labor practices and conditions that threaten the workers who toil for global retail and food companies like Walmart or Tyson.

"None of those firms want slave labor in their supply chain," said Brian Fugate, associate professor of supply-chain management at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

"But the practical dimension of it is, in many cases, their primary suppliers have suppliers, and they have suppliers and so on," he said. "Despite what companies want, how can they actually monitor suppliers that may be two or three places removed?"

The risk of forced labor, known as a type of enslavement, is widespread still across industries. According to the International Labor Organization, an estimated 24.9 million people are victims of forced labor practices around the world.

More than 60 percent of them are "exploited in the private sector" doing "domestic work, construction or agriculture," data show. Poor working and living conditions, intimidation tactics and excessive overtime are signs that individuals, or businesses, are using forced labor for profit.

Tyson Foods and Walmart, two of the world's largest companies, have safeguards in place that prohibit their suppliers from allowing forced labor. Walmart, for instance, has an internal watchdog group of roughly 200 to audit and investigate supplier conditions. Tyson's supplier code of conduct, meanwhile, puts pressure on its partners to "prohibit discrimination, harassment, forced labor and child labor," among other expectations. Walmart has similar codes of conduct.

The challenge for each company is whether they dive deep enough to prevent or correct a problem. KnowTheChain, a project of Humanity United, is a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that addresses the risks of forced labor abuses within company supply chains. Results from a 2018 benchmark were published last month.

Killian Moote, project director for KnowTheChain, said the group combed through public documents for the results, such as company filings, news reports, allegations of forced labor, etc. He said the group gauged how companies responded to allegations of forced labor and, in applicable cases, "made sure the remediation [was] up to the workers' standards."

"We're really looking at the company policies and procedures rather than their own operations," Moote said as a disclaimer.

In the results, Bentonville's Walmart was near the front of the pack, ranking sixth out of 38 reported companies. The watchdog group reported that Walmart shared more information than most in regard to forced labor practices and policies. According to the group's online database, two allegations of forced labor were found in the retailer's supply chain. One involved a public response from Walmart; neither prompted worker outcomes nor remedies.

"The best companies are proactive," said David Hyatt, a professor of supply-chain management at the University of Arkansas. They "should be auditing and visiting" sites and working with "[nongovernmental organizations] in the region to support an initiative to help with this," he said.

In a phone interview, Hyatt recalled a Walmart supplier that was sourcing materials from a Bolivian sweatshop for a jewelry line called Love, Earth. The products were marketed as being created in conditions favorable to the workers. But the Broward/Palm Beach County New Times reported in January 2011 that the Bolivian manufacturer offered insufficient pay, regularly strip-searched employees and discouraged employees from attending night school.

"The plant sort of hid operations from Walmart and those operations were not overseen by Walmart staffers," Hyatt said. "Reasons we are doing business with these countries is that there's a cost function involved."

Springdale's Tyson, meanwhile, landed toward the bottom, ranking 31 out of 38. Tyson disclosed "significantly less information on its forced-labor policies and practices than its peers," according to KnowTheChain's online database.

Despite commitments made by Tyson last year to improve its workplace, primarily in the dozens of U.S. processing plants, the meatpacker scored a 12 -- one of the lowest rankings on the benchmark. The grade came in part from not having a sufficient grievance mechanism in place for its suppliers and their workers, Moote said.

"How do you check?" he said. "One is this idea of auditing to do the 'spot check'... the other is through worker voice."

According to the report, agricultural workers tend to fall prey to exploitation due to seasonal, unstable contracts with employers, language barriers that limit their ability to understand their rights and fear they could lose their job.

An estimated $9 billion in illegal U.S. profits come from forced labor in agricultural supply chains each year, according to the U.S. State Department. A 2018 labor report shows forced and child labor is used in parts of South America and Africa for poultry and cattle production, including Brazil, home to the largest meat producer in the world, JBS.

In the states, workers at processing plants and farms have similar issues. The meat and poultry industry drum up some of the highest illness and injury rates across the board. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the U.S. Department of Labor, poultry workers are five times more likely to be injured than other workers. Poultry plant workers face industrial pushes to increase production line speeds and are often denied bathroom breaks.

A spokesman for Tyson Foods said in an email the company is "always looking for ways to be more transparent" and have programs in place to "make sure our operations and suppliers are operating responsibly." The spokesman pointed to a company "Bill of Rights" and an ethics toll-free number and Web-based helpline available for workers throughout the supply chain.

A possible remedy to the risks inherent in supply chains is blockchain technology, which acts as a permanent, unalterable digital ledger for transactions, Hyatt said. A bloc of corporate interests, which include Tyson, IBM, Nestle and Walmart, have been testing how to use the technology for food recall and safety purposes since 2015. They began toying with the idea of tracking food globally through their supply chains this year.

"It doesn't mean people still can't lie and cheat, but it gives firms better tools at a lower cost to get a better visibility into their extended supply chain," he said.

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