The UK has a highly concentrated food retail sector and a 'low price' competitive consumer market. As a result the supermarkets are accused of passing cost-savings down their supply chains. One consequence of this is a restructuring of labor markets including the use of migrant workers who are often employed as low-paid, temporary pickers, packers and processors in food and agricultural production.
The vulnerability of migrant workers in food and agricultural business is rarely documented in the context of business policy or CSR practices so a new study by the UK's Ecumenical Council For Corporate Responsibility (ECCR), published last month, is an eye-opening document.
The EECR is a church-based investor coalition working for economic justice, environmental stewardship, and corporate and investor responsibility, and their new report Vulnerable Migrant Workers: The Responsibility of Business, reveals the vulnerability of migrant workers in areas of the UK domestic economy where low-skilled flexible labor is concentrated: care, cleaning, construction, hospitality and catering, and food production, manufacturing and retailing.
The research focuses on the food sector in the UK and Ireland and compares the policies and practices of nine food production, manufacturing, and supermarket companies towards migrant workers, particularly their supply chains. The companies investigated are: Associated British Foods, Greencore Group, Kerry Group, Morrisons, Northern Foods, Premier Foods, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Unilever.
The report finds that few of these food companies are explicit about the potential vulnerability of migrant workers or the additional support they might need. While the report says most recognize some responsibility for workers in their supply chains, few appear to have mainstreamed considerations about labor conditions into their core business practice.
The study details a wide range of findings, but generally found monitoring of labor conditions throughout the supply chain were weak among the companies and at times there was a failure to translate a company's stated labor policy into practice. In the case of three companies the report finds evidence of exploitation of migrant workers in their supply chains.
The ECCR developed a series of assessment indicators, with a numerical scoring system, as part of their study of the nine companies. A company could score a maximum of 24 using this method. The results and scores were:
Northern Foods: Score 17/24 Rank 1; Sainsbury's: 14/24 Rank 2=; Tesco: 14/24 Rank 2=; Premier Foods: 12.5/24 Rank 4; Kerry Group: 9.5/24 Rank 5; Unilever: 9/24 Rank 6; Greencore Group: 7/24 Rank 7; Associated British Foods: 4/24 Rank 8=; and Morrisons 4/24 Rank 8=.
All the companies in the study were informed of the research and invited to contribute relevant information and to comment on a draft. Five out of the nine companies responded on each occasion.
Among a series of recommendations, the report highlights the need for companies to:
- recognize the potential vulnerability of migrant labor, temporary and agency workers;
- implement effective codes of conduct for suppliers;
- increase awareness of rights among workers; and
- strengthen monitoring and audits.
ECCR researcher Sunniva Taylor said:
"Many companies' profits benefit from the use of flexible labor in the supply chain. Companies and investors therefore have a moral responsibility to reduce the incidence of vulnerable work throughout their business and supply chain".
The ECCR says it hopes the report will be used as a framework for investors to consider how companies perform with regard to vulnerable migrant workers and by company managements, workforces and trade unions seeking to improve policy and practice.