speri.comment: the political economy blog

The Endemic Problem of Forced Labour in Global Tea and Cocoa Supply Chains

What do tea and cocoa have in common? Both products are widely consumed by households around the world; the early world market for both industries was intertwined with the history of colonialism; and in today’s global economy, both products are made with forced labour.

Genevieve LeBaron, Professor of Politics and co-director of SPERI

Over the past two years, I’ve led The Global Business of Forced Labour research project, funded by the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council and based at the University of Sheffield. We’ve been investigating the business of forced labour in global cocoa and tea supply chains. Our research has tackled the following key questions:

  • What factors create business “demand” for forced labour within global supply chains?
  • What are the business models of forced labour in cocoa and tea supply chains that supply chocolate and tea to the British and American markets?
  • How effective are corporate social responsibility initiatives like “ethical” certification and anti-slavery laws in combating the business of forced labour?

Because so little reliable secondary data exists on forced labour in global supply chains, my team has gathered a new primary data set to gain insights into these questions. It took our team of 14 researchers roughly two years to gather this data set, which includes in-depth interviews with more than 120 tea and cocoa workers, a survey of more than 1,000 tea and cocoa workers, and more than 110 interviews with business and government actors including tea and cocoa plantation managers and buyers, large multinational beverage and confectionery companies, corporate social responsibility experts, international organisations, government representatives and other key actors. The project’s research methodology and findings are detailed in our forthcoming report. In this column, I want to highlight one of our major findings and its implications for policymakers and industry leaders seeking to combat forced labour.

Far from being a hidden crime perpetrated by a few bad apple employers, our research suggests that forced labour and labour exploitation more broadly are endemic features of global cocoa and tea supply chains. Our research documents coherent patterns of labour abuse, including forced labour, at the base of global tea and cocoa supply chains. The workers interviewed and surveyed in our study have experienced physical violence; sexual violence; verbal abuse; threats of violence; threats of dismissal; debt bondage; the under-provision of goods and services including housing, sanitation, water, food and medical care that employers are legally mandated to provide; non- and under-payment of wages; and the requirement that they complete unpaid labour as a condition of their employment.

The root causes of forced labour within cocoa and tea supply chains are varied and complex. But one key driver in both industries is uneven value distribution along the supply chain. In both industries, producers that we spoke to claimed that they no longer receive high enough prices from cocoa and tea buyers to pay minimum wage.

The costs associated with tea and cocoa production have spiked in recent years, including for oil, water and labour. Yet, due to downward pressure on tea and cocoa prices in the wake of economic globalization, as well as the persistent unwillingness of companies at the top of the supply chains to pay higher prices, prices for producers have remained constant. As one tea producer explained to us, “Workers are getting higher wages and conditions, which is good, but we are still receiving the same price for our tea that we were receiving 30 years ago. If anything, we’re receiving less. And we have to pay them more.” One of the ways that employers seek to balance rising costs and stagnant prices is through unfair treatment of workers, which, in its extreme form, amounts to forced labour.

Importantly, the companies at the top of the supply chain who are sourcing tea and cocoa include both multi-national corporations and domestic companies. Our study included tea plantations owned by multi-national corporations and domestic companies, who produce for both export and the domestic market. Although large swathes of academic and activist literature hold that forced labour is a product of global supply chains, we found labour standards to be broadly similar across tea plantations owned by domestic companies and multi-national corporations. If anything, there was a slightly positive correlation between labour standards and multi-national corporation ownership. This flags the need to look more carefully at domestic and non-branded supply chains, which are currently missing from most prominent discussions about and solutions to the business of forced labour in supply chains.

Briefly put, our research calls into question claims that forced labour is challenging to detect, due to the complex and multi-tiered nature of supply chains. We found abusive practices to be widespread and easily detected within global agricultural supply chains. Forced labour is not happening in shadowy corners of the global economy, but rather in broad daylight at the base of major global supply chains. It doesn’t take an expensive consulting firm or fancy risk mapping software to understand these risks and problems—it requires listening to workers and producers about the challenges they face.

Workers are currently marginalized within many corporate social responsibility and government initiatives to address supply chains. Yet, of anyone, workers are perhaps best positioned to explain the patterns of forced labour, as well as how businesses make money from it. Businesses and governments who are serious about fighting forced labour need to empower workers and cooperate with them to build solutions to forced labour in global supply chains in which workers play a central role. The worker-driven social responsibility programs being developed in the United States and elsewhere provide good examples to emulate and scale in other sectors and contexts.

This article was first published on the Delta 8.7 website and is available here. Delta 8.7 is a global knowledge platform established by the United Nations University – Centre for Policy Research (UNU-CPR). Genevieve LeBaron writes a regular column for Delta 8.7.

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