Sustainability experts discuss human rights in agriculture value chains


23 June, 2020




Singapore, 23 June: Agribusinesses have a responsibility to ensure that human rights are respected within their operations and across their supply chains. Many of these companies have significant land footprints, operate in complex value chain networks, and are major employers across the globe, including in countries with fragile social and political environments and weak jurisdiction.

As a farmer-facing forum of member companies engaging hundreds of thousands of smallholders, the Global Agribusiness Alliance (GAA), a WBCSD sector project, facilitates the sharing, uptake and implementation of good practice and policy.

On 10 June, GAA hosted a virtual panel discussion on human rights, featuring speakers from across commodity sectors and stages in the supply chain. Panelists joined from Golden Agri-Resources, Philip Morris International, Nestlé, Bunge, Olam, and AB Sugar, with additional insights from Suseco and the Consumer Goods Forum. The session also highlighted GAA’s forthcoming ‘Agribusiness Guide to Respecting Human Rights’ which will help build members’ capacities to understand and operationalize the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and safeguard human rights in their supply chains.

Key themes and good practices to improve the sector’s performance on human rights.

Cross-sector collaboration

Agriculture and food companies must work with labor unions, local and national governments, and stakeholders across the supply chain to address wider challenges such as poverty, social norms, land ownership, plus local access to education, justice and remedy.

Jaideep Bedi shared how Bunge collaborates with NGOs to assess labor practices of the company’s suppliers and to address abuses related to contract terms, forced labor, and ethical recruitment in Nepal and Malaysia. Anita Neville described Golden Agri-Resource’s participation in the Decent Rural Living Initiative with other progressive palm oil companies in Indonesia. In an effort to strengthen contracts and minimize the precariousness of casual and flexible work for part-time workers, the agribusinesses consulted with labor unions, worker representatives, and the International Labour Organization to carry out pilot projects. She says of this process: “Ultimately we need to work collaboratively to be able to address these systemic issues.”

Context-specific approaches

Context-specific approaches to prevention and remediation of human rights abuses are necessary, given the different social and economic complexities in agricultural regions that drive the root causes of these challenges. What works well in the cocoa sector in Côte d’Ivoire cannot simply be applied to the palm sector in Indonesia given the differing cultural norms, regulations, social services and other factors.

AB Sugar’s Katharine Teague reiterated this, expressing that “each different location has a different set of driving factors.” She pointed to AB Sugar’s Mozambique operations and its culture-specific interplay between levels of education, land ownership regulations and poverty.

Salient human rights challenges in the agribusiness sector

Panelists and participants surveyed during the session shared that the most salient human rights challenges in the agriculture sector include child labor, gender equity, wage equality, living incomes, working conditions, forced labor and contracting.

Phillip Morris International (PMI)’s Anna Kletsidou shared that child labor is the most salient issue for them. To mitigate the risk of child labor and address its root causes, PMI conducts awareness-raising and training for all employees; strengthens school access through the provision of school feeding, scholarships, and materials; invests in childcare centers; and more.

Moving business focus to how members proactively and positively raise awareness and empower people to achieve a better economic future is at the heart of a solid human rights strategy.

Industry-wide expectations

To ensure consistency in messaging, compliance and remediation, and to discourage freeriding by non-compliant companies, industry-wide expectations on respecting human rights are necessary. Louise Nicholls from Suseco emphasized that commodity or company-specific siloed approaches do not work, as human rights abuses will simply shift into different supply chains within a given local economy. There must be a united, zero-tolerance stance on human rights abuses from all actors in government and business.

Forced labor in the agriculture sector is often driven by 1) restriction of freedom of movement, 2) recruitment fees or debt, and 3) coercion at work. Consumer Goods Forum’s Didier Bergeret described how CGF members have aligned and ensure consistency of their respective principles, work programs, and messaging to efficiently address forced labor and its drivers.

Barbara Wettstein from Nestlé also highlighted the importance of developing a collective industry voice and setting the same expectations across the sector so that manufacturers can work with upstream suppliers and fund capacity building and implementation projects that help achieve a unified goal.

Impacts of COVID-19

The impacts of COVID-19 on human rights are still being assessed, however there is concern that the pandemic will pose a set-back to efforts towards eliminating child labor and ensuring migrant labor rights.

Julie Greene from Olam shared that during the pandemic, “labor movement has been restricted which means that farmers are often unable to access the labor they need to harvest or to plant crops. 70% of the world’s children are still out of school and this often leads to parents relying on their children to fill labor gaps.” This brings short-term risk to children’s health and well-being and could increase school drop-outs in the longer term.

There is optimism, however, around how companies, NGOs, and public sector actors have united to creatively address the impacts of COVID-19 in communities. This energy and newfound collaborative attitude towards tackling the virus can be leveraged to also tackle human rights challenges in agricultural and food supply chains.

GAA Agribusiness Guide to Respecting Human Rights

The ‘GAA Agribusiness Guide to Respecting Human Rights’ will be released in Q3 2020 to help member companies working in the agricultural supply chain to 1) understand their responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; 2) assess human rights risk in their own operations; and 3) strengthen their own performance on respecting human rights, reducing the risk of negative impacts and remediating when these occur. For more information, email GAA Director Ruth Thomas at

GAA is grateful to the following panelists for their contributions:

· Anita Neville, SVP Group Corporate Communications, Golden Agri Resources

· Anna Kletsidou, Head of Social Sustainability & Human Rights, Philip Morris International

· Barbara Wettstein, Public Affairs Manager Responsible Sourcing, Nestlé

· Didier Bergeret, Director Social Sustainability, CGF

· Jaideep Bedi, Manager, APAC, Bunge

· Julie Greene, VP Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Olam

· Katharine Teague, Head of Advocacy, AB Sugar

· Louise Nicholls, Managing Director, Suseco