Moving from policy to practice: respecting human rights in food and agricultural supply chains

Globalization and emerging technology have revolutionized global supply chains. The agro-food sector has reaped tremendous benefits from cheaper and faster production, while expanding their sourcing to more and more countries. But the benefits garnered by the agro-food sector have not reached those working hard to produce our food. A fair share of the value across supply chains has not yet become a reality.

Published: 24 Sep 2019
Type: News

Inequality and human rights abuses are endemic in our global economy, and small-scale farmers/workers, especially women, continue to face acute challenges. Farmers and workers often endure poverty-level wages, forced labor, gender discrimination, and ever-tenuous access to land and natural resources. Problems are only exacerbated in the context of a climate crisis that places more pressure onto landscapes across the world.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

From agribusinesses to major food companies to leading retailers, all actors along the value chain have both an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure commodities are grown and sourced ethically. While these chains may differ by country and commodity, collectively they touch hundreds of millions of farmers and workers. The systemic issues they face therefore requires an industry-wide response that extends from policy to practice.

At Oxfam, we believe that business has a critical role to play to end the injustice of poverty by respecting human rights and improving transparency as a first step. While we challenge bad practices, we also work constructively to promote ethical and sustainable business practice which respects human rights.

Behind the Brands – Change the Way Food Companies Do Business

In 2013, Oxfam initiated a groundbreaking campaign, Behind the Brands, to challenge 10 of the largest food and beverage companies to improve their economic, social, and environmental performance. This initiative drew the support of 700,000 advocates and spurred well-known companies to make unprecedented commitments: Mars, Mondelez, and Nestlé committed to tackle gender inequality in their supply chains. The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo declared zero tolerance for land grabs. General Mills and the Kellogg Company pledged to fight climate change, setting science-based greenhouse gas reduction targets and eliminating deforestation from their supply chains.

As companies move from commitment to practice, Oxfam is increasing its focus on companies’ suppliers. In March 2019, Oxfam published its first agribusiness scorecard and report analyzing the policies and practices of seven large agribusinesses: ADM, Bunge, Barry Callebaut, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus, Olam, and Wilmar. These agribusinesses were chosen because of their ties to food and beverage companies, significance to trade in key commodities, such as sugar, cocoa, and palm oil, as well as importance in developing country “hot spots” where social and environmental challenges are present.

The report compared agribusiness policies to international good practice and identified clear cases where policies and implementation plans fell short of commitments made by the Behind the Brands companies. Oxfam’s priority engagement with the agribusiness sector includes women’s empowerment and gender equality, respect for communities’ land rights, accountability and transparency concerning environmental practices, and ensuring smallholder producers get a fair share of the deal.

Behind the Barcodes – End Human Suffering Behind Our Food

In June 2018, Oxfam expanded its work to food retailers with the launch of the Behind the Barcodes campaign, which asked 16 supermarkets to take responsibility for ending human suffering in their food supply chains. We reviewed the biggest supermarkets’ policies and published the Supermarket Scorecard to see whether they are respecting the people who produce our food or leaving workers’ rights on the shelf.


We found that not one of the supermarkets is doing enough to respect the rights of thousands of people who put food into our markets and onto our tables. Millions of small-scale farmers and workers around the world who produce food for supermarkets are trapped in poverty and some are going hungry. In Thailand and Indonesia, seafood workers face poverty wages, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions and verbal abuse. Some produce and process food all day but go home hungry. Over 90% of women workers on South African grape farms reported not having enough to eat in the previous month, along with 75% of workers surveyed in the Italian tomato sector.

After a year of the campaign, more than 232,200 people globally have signed up and taken action with their local supermarkets. Supermarkets have begun to respond by making commitments to tackle the exploitation of food workers and farmers:

  • Two Dutch companies, Albert Heijn and Jumbo, have made important commitments on sustainability and human rights. Others, such as Aldi South in Germany, Tesco in the UK, and supermarkets in Thailand, progressed toward ‘knowing and showing’ to identify significant human rights risks in their supply chain;
  • The 2019 Supermarket Scorecard shows that some supermarkets – Ahold Delhaize’s Dutch subsidiary, Albert Heijn, Aldi South, Jumbo, Morrisons, Rewe and Tesco – made important new commitments to ensure the women and men in their supply chains are treated fairly.

While some are doing better than others, all supermarkets lack sufficient policies to properly respect the people who produce our food. No supermarket does even 40% of what the Oxfam benchmark asks of them. These examples show that, while change is possible, most companies move slowly, and in response to public pressure.

How can businesses respect human rights in food supply chains?

When Oxfam engages with companies to adopt new commitments, we know it is only the first step. The true measure of success is improvements in the lives of people living in poverty and protections for our environment and natural resources. We believe that achieving fairer and more equitable value chains requires:

  1. Understanding the issues – Educating all levels of your business, from farmers and workers to C- suite executives on the importance of respecting human rights as a moral imperative, a responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles and as a key component of your bottom line
  2. Committing to transparency – Conducting robust human rights impact assessments throughout your supply chain and being transparent about risks and abuses that do occur
  3. Acting and monitoring – Working with your suppliers to address issues as they arise, including establishing credible and effective monitoring mechanisms that go beyond social audits, as well as contributing to the costs of ethical business practices
  4. Collaborating with the ‘unusual’ suspects– Listening to the concerns of civil society organizations, especially frontline workers’ rights organizations and trade unions, and human rights defenders to understand the issues and find solutions that address those concerns
  5. Learning and adapting – improvement can only take place if companies open themselves up to learning from their experience and adapt policies and practice as new information surfaces and norms change over time

Supply chains are complex and dynamic - no one single actor can solve these challenges alone. Leading companies should set an example and be willing to share their lessons learned as well as early successes with others. Learning from across different commodities will undoubtedly be helpful for the entire agro-food sector – it will strengthen what has worked well and help to fill the remaining gaps, without having to reinvent the wheel.

This is a guest blog for WBCSD by Matt Hamilton, Art Prapha and Monica Romis, Oxfam’s Private Sector and Policy Advisors.

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