Oxfam’s Ripe for Change report highlights hunger and suffering amongst the people who grow and process our food. Across a basket of 12 common food products, we present evidence of in-work poverty and a deep disempowerment, especially among women workers. As well as this, we show the decline in the share of the consumer price going to workers and small-scale farmers over time, compared with the supermarkets. Conventional approaches to identify and manage non-compliance with companies’ codes and a reliance on sometimes superficial ethical labels, need a complete rethink.

What can companies do to wean themselves off their reliance on compliance audits and embrace a better way to manage human rights risks, while delivering a positive impact for the people in their supply chains? At the outset of our campaign we are asking supermarkets to look at what steps they can take to better ensure workers’ wellbeing, from the women peeling shrimp in processing plants in South East Asia to those picking grapes in South Africa.

This approach should be robust enough to do less harm and more good. In this blog we pick out elements of the more robust approach Oxfam is calling for and signpost ways that companies with a strong CSR team, and support from senior executives, can transition to it in a year or so.

1) Know and show risks related to workers’ rights

2) Take action in your own supply chain

3) Take action beyond your own supply chain

1) Know and show risks related to workers’ rights

This starts with greater supply chain transparency, enabling consumers, civil society and investors to find out more about where and how products are produced. So which companies are doing this? In food (and now fish), Marks & Spencer and Taylors of Harrogate (tea and coffee) In garments Nike did this back in 2005, but H&M and ASOS have followed. In electronics HP stands out for publishing not only the names and addresses of its first tier suppliers but also its commodity and component suppliers. It shows a company understands risks for workers when it recognises the limitations of audits, something Tesco has done in its Modern Slavery Statement:

“While well conducted audits can play a useful role in identifying some human rights abuses, they are only one part of the answer. We have therefore focussed audit on high risk locations whilst focussing most resource on alternative approaches” – Tesco

Go deeper to understand the human rights issues

Carrying out a human rights due diligence process can help identify the key problems in a sector, so a more robust strategy can be formulated to tackle them, see for instance PepsiCo and Thai Union. To do the job well means going deeper into a supply chain via a human rights impact assessment. This involves looking at adverse human rights impacts linked to the business, and can only be done through meaningful engagement with workers, affected communities and civil society stakeholders. Guidance by Oxfam and Danish Institute for Human Rights is available. Examples include Nestle in its cocoa supply chain (one on labour standardsone on gender) and S-Group in Italian tomatoes. The Co-op has committed to carry out and publish such assessments in high risk foods by 2021.

Gender data is important

Good practice also means tracking and disclosing the rough proportion of female and male workers at production sites, helping to make visible trends in its workforce. SSE and BHP have done this for their operations, whilst Walmart has set targets for sourcing from women-owned businesses. Extracting gendered data from Sedex can help, something Sainsbury’s does, but thousands more of its members could readily do.

Grievance mechanisms are key

Last but not least, having in place a grievance mechanism that gives workers ‘access to remedy’ and meets the criteria set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human RightsKnow the Chain identified Wilmar as a notable example in the food and beverage sector for its public grievance mechanism. The best such mechanisms involve workers’ needs being represented via a trade union. In sectors where that is a distant prospect, such as Thai seafood, networks such as the Migrant Workers’ Rights Network and the new Fishers’ Rights Network can be a starting point until it becomes legal for migrant workers officially to register in a union. The litmus test for a grievance mechanism is whether it is trusted and used by workers.

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