Human Rights in Food Justice – Labor & Global Supply Chains

By: Johanna Lee (HLS J.D. Candidate, Class of 2021)

Posted: 3/11/2019

On March 9, 2019 Harvard Human Rights and Business Student Association (“HuB”) co-sponsored Harvard Law School’s 2019 Food Justice Symposium. Keynote speaker Conniel Malek, Director of True Costs Initiative, introduced the theme of “embracing complexity” in food systems. To highlight this complexity, the Symposium presented a diversity of approaches to promoting food justice through its four panels. The final panel, titled “Hidden Costs: Labor and the Global Supply Chain,” was co-moderated by HuB Treasurer, Alexander Kontopoulos, and featured four experts in the field. Each panelist brought a unique approach and set of experiences to the conversation on how workers, corporations, and large lenders can promote sustainable environmental and labor practices in global supply chains.

Charity Ryerson, Founder and Legal Director of Corporate Accountability Lab, began the session by explaining the importance of remediating corporate abuses and asserting that there are “no rights without remedies.” To illustrate her point, she discussed Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa sector, in which multi-national companies make major profits, yet farmers do not make enough to pay for workers. As a result, farmers are unable to purchase basic necessities and rely on child or forced labor. The solution to this problem, according to Ryerson, is not corporate social responsibility (“CSR”)—which often only serves as a public relations (“PR”) tool for corporations and fails to impact conditions on the ground—nor is it is punishing cocoa farmers for their reliance on cheap or free labor. Instead, the key is to allot a greater profit margin to farmers, a solution complicated by low, government-set prices and willful blindness to child labor by civil society. Indeed, one major reason that West Africa produces seventy percent of the world’s cocoa supply is the exceedingly low prices set for cocoa.

Next, Malek discussed how corporate accountability alone is not sufficient in ensuring food justice. Instead, strong rule of law and enforcement are crucial. To achieve this, Malek highlighted the importance of entering the food justice space and talking to and learning from one another. She explained how she seeks to engage with advocates who use different types of tactics to pressure corporations, whether it is via the media, campaigns, or research. It is the convergence of these leverage points that shifts the cost-benefit analysis of corporations sufficiently to change their behaviors. Without such concerted, sustained, consumers will remain unaware of the “true costs” of the food they purchase and instead continue to be inundated with glamorous CSR campaigns.

The following panelist, Suzanne Adely, Regional Organizer for Food Chain Workers Alliance, focused on the challenges faced by food workers, who constitute fourteen percent of all workers. While supplying the country’s food supply, these workers experience the greatest food insecurity, earn the lowest median wages, and have very low job security. Adely explained the historical and structural roots of such exploitation, connecting the displacement of Native American food systems with slave labor and indentured servitude, systems that modern American society has inherited. This legacy appears in the United States today in the exploitation of immigrant labor and workplace raids at farms and meatpacking factories by government agents. Ultimately, Adely concluded that the most effective solution to holding corporations accountable is to empower workers to organize so that they can place real economic pressure on their employers and require them to make substantive changes. Another strategy is to build alternative models of food production, such as the creation of cooperatives.

Finally, Frazer Lanier, Vice President of Environmental and Social Risk Management at Citi, expounded upon Citi’s efforts to address labor rights concerning palm oil. Lanier highlighted the power of using financial leverage through system of lending to hold corporations accountable. He explained that in order to be qualified for loans, Citi clients must be certified by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (“RSPO”), which lays out various conditions in loan agreements. Examples include prohibiting a quota system, which often leads to entire families, including children, to work on the plantation; barring the confiscation of passports; mandating a living wage for all workers; and applying new technologies, like Ulula, an SMS system that obtains anonymous feedback from workers regarding labor conditions. The violation of such principles results in suspension of RSPO certification, which Lanier maintained has significant repercussions for the palm oil seller since certification is required for market access in a number of countries.

While the mechanism of loan conditions shows some promise for tackling issues that may emerge going forward, an audience member noted that such programs have been heavily criticized for failing to address historical dispossessions of indigenous lands. In response, Frazer pointed to the RSPO’s grievance mechanism for handling complaints, including those filed by indigenous people. Ryerson also mentioned the potential for employing contract law as an additional avenue of redress outside the RSPO. The inclusion of so-called “third party beneficiary” language in a contract explicitly grants individuals who are not parties to the contract the right to sue. This means that if a loan or supplier agreement is conditioned on meeting certain labor or environmental standards, then failure to meet those standards would constitute a breach of contract, thus permitting workers—as third party beneficiaries to the contract—to sue in the country where the lead firm operates. This mechanism, as opposed to voluntary initiatives, shows more promise for ensuring a remedy to human rights violations.

The issues discussed at the Symposium honed in on the complexity of our current food system, including the social injustices deeply embedded in the global supply chain. Rather than shying away from the difficult challenges raised or suggesting “silver bullet” solutions, the panelists affirmed the need for diverse and nuanced approaches to effectively alter the prevailing economic and legal landscape. For example, they showed that it is not enough to simply raise the cost of chocolate bars; instead, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the distribution of wealth, increasing the earnings of farmers, instead of corporations. Likewise, while the development of messaging systems that anonymous survey workers is a promising start, supporting infrastructure must be established in order to ensure that the communications are sent without coercion. This realistic portrayal of the problems facing the modern food system combined with the auspicious showcase of the possibility of creative solutions to such dilemmas assuredly left Symposium attendees with a sense of optimism regarding the future of food justice.

BHR Through a Gender Lens

By: Johanna Lee (HLS J.D. Candidate, Class of 2021)

Posted: 4/8/2019

As part of the United Nations (UN) Forum on Business and Human Rights held last November, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (BHR) convened a Gender Roundtable for feminist and BHR practitioners to gather information on the unique challenges women and girls face with regards to business-related human rights abuses. One of the Roundtable participants, Ms. Irit Tamir, Director of Oxfam America’s Private Sector Department, came to Harvard Law School on April 1 to speak at the event “Business and Human Rights: Through a Gender Lens,” alongside Ms. Jane Nelson, Director of Corporate Responsibility Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Co-hosted by Harvard Women’s Law Association (WLA) and Human Rights and Business Student Association (HuB), the event aimed to highlight the much-needed feminist approach to corporate accountability and BHR. Below are a few highlights from the event.

The Historical Arch of Corporate Accountability, BHR, and Gender

According to Ms. Nelson, there have been three phases of the corporate accountability and BHR movement. The first phase followed the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, focusing on the issue of compliance by corporations, in which workplace diversity became a part of businesses’ legal compliance measures. In the mid-1990s, the second phase emerged and was characterized by awareness raising. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton symbolically laid the groundwork on making human rights a global issue and a business issue in her speech “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” which she delivered at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. In the years to follow, the endeavor to raise awareness about the role of business in human rights abuses proved successful. This was in large part thanks to the combined efforts of the media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International and Oxfam in bringing to light the human rights violations caused by extractive industries and the garment industry. For example, the negative press regarding oil spillages in Nigerian villages in 2005 resulting from Shell’s petroleum production in the Niger Delta caused a significant backlash against Shell.

The third phase developed in the early 2000s, as human rights advocates began to supplement their strategy of awareness raising to contending that corporations themselves had to do more to address human rights violations and become a part of the global solution. One of the earliest signs of this shift was the UN Global Compact, a non-binding corporate social responsibility initiative launched in 2000 that encouraged businesses to adopt ten principles in the areas of human rights, labor, the environment, and anti-corruption.

In 2009, the need to incorporate a gender lens to corporate accountability and BHR became apparent, as the UN adopted the Women’s Empowerment Principles, which offers a business case for corporations to simultaneously improve their bottom line while promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. Since 2010, the gender lens for BHR has expanded, with the focus shifting beyond examining corporate boards and employees to examining the gender dimensions of supply chains. Several effective campaigns have been waged, including Oxfam’s “Behind the Brands” campaign, which began in 2013 and introduced the idea of rating major food and beverage companies based on their social and environmental policies and practices. That same year, Oxfam also began to look at the role of women farmers in cocoa supply chains. The NGO sought to persuade major companies such as Nestlé and Mars to enact policies to help empower women farmers who are significantly disadvantaged because they often do not hold title to the land they cultivate; are not members of farmer cooperatives; and do not have access to training, seeds, or credit. Examples of policies recommended by Oxfam include ensuring that women have access to training and pressuring governments to abolish discriminatory policies that prevent women from owning land.

Other recent phenomena that have helped strengthen the current movement to approach BHR through a gender lens include the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the #MeToo movement. Inaugurated in 2015, the SDGs have illustrated that efforts to combat poverty must necessarily entail measures to empower women and girls. Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement, which spread across social media in 2017, has helped shine a spotlight on issues that disproportionately impact women, ranging from sexual harassment in the workplace in the United States to gender-based violence in global supply chains.

Current Efforts to Promote a Gender Approach to BHR

Efforts by Oxfam and HKS

Despite the progress that has been made, Ms. Nelson stated that “there is still a long way to go.” The main problem is that of changing corporate culture. To address this issue, Oxfam is currently engaged in several corporate campaigns to promote women’s empowerment. For example, in 2018, Oxfam launched the new campaign “Behind the Barcodes,” which looks at the role of women in global supply chains. In addition, Oxfam has partnered with Mars to provide living incomes to farmers and empower women in their supply chains. Oxfam has also targeted pharmaceutical companies for tax evasion, which has increased drug prices and impeded women’s ability to access health. Moreover, Oxfam manages an activist fund, in which the NGO holds stock in companies that it is trying to influence. Meanwhile, HKS’ Corporate Responsibility Initiative encourages large multi-national corporations in “embedding and spreading” both the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the SDGs. The Initiative also strives to work more in collective action with civil society to set human rights standards for corporations.

The UN Gender Roundtable

The purpose of the UN Gender Roundtable held last November was to gather information on the impact of businesses on women in advance of a report to be published this June. According to Ms. Tamir, who participated in the session on Trade, Investment, and Tax, a wide range of subjects were deliberated. These include the gender dimension of State investment policies and budgeting, which often disregard the needs of women; the issue of unpaid care and the negative cultural norm created when companies only provide maternity leave; and the pervasive problem of violence against women. The Roundtable also included discussion of the creation of a binding treaty on the UN Guiding Principles and the recent demands of feminists to more prominently highlight gender in the treaty language. While the Roundtable exhibited a new drive to apply a feminist approach to corporate accountability and BHR, it remains unclear how the discussion will translate to concrete action, considering that the Working Group is an unfunded UN mandate.

Efforts by Corporations

How have corporations themselves begun to address the increasing demands to account for gender in BHR? First, companies have begun to examine their core business operations beyond basic compliance concerns to strategic risk management issues. Specifically, companies have begun to assess their due diligence measures at the workplace by critically thinking about the existence of unconscious gender biases in the office, how managers are evaluated, whether the company has established specific gender targets, and whether women have access to grievance mechanisms in the case of abuse. Second, companies, especially those involved in agrobusiness, have looked beyond promoting women’s inclusion and empowerment at the workplace to their supply chains more broadly. Third, more companies have begun to engage in collective action around human rights advocacy, such as by speaking up about corporate tax avoidance and promoting a human rights and gender-based approach to investment. Such progressive steps taken by companies reveal a promising, gradual convergence of the business and human rights agendas.

Conclusion: What’s Next?  

The BHR field has, until recently, largely overlooked the unique needs of women and girls. In order to address this gap, the following actions must be taken. First, social and cultural norms must shift so that human rights and gender concerns are always embedded in corporate and government policies and practices. Second, governments should increase regulation of companies by imposing disclosure requirements. Third, companies should pressure governments to establish policies that remain obstacles to women’s empowerment (e.g. policies that prevent women farmers from owning land). Fourth, the investor community should utilize gender indexes in order to only invest in socially responsible corporations that respect human rights and promote gender equality. Fifth, academics and activists should combine forces to approach BHR using a gender lens.

Overall, it is clear that in order to most effectively promote BHR and women’s empowerment, civil society must engage corporations and support policies that will simultaneously serve business interests and advance human rights. By joining efforts, BHR advocates, corporations, and governments will be able to shape corporate behavior in a way that promotes women’s inclusion and empowerment.