Managers in global supply chains need to do more to tackle modern slavery

More needs to be done to tackle modern slavery in supply chains in Brazil - one of the world’s biggest suppliers of beef and an important source of timber.

Whilst some businesses in Brazil are already putting measures in place to tackle modern slavery in their supply chains, there is a lack of consistency in approach, action is voluntary, and initiatives are frequently limited to specific communities or locations, according to new research.

The research was carried out by experts from the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab and the Pontifical University in Rio de Janeiro, in conjunction with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), CORE and Reporter Brasil.

“Different legislation, short-term relationships with suppliers and the need to educate suppliers on the risks of modern slavery are just some of the challenges faced by businesses in Brazil,” according to the project’s Principal Investigator, Dr Alex Trautrims from the Rights Lab.

The research included analysis of four supply chain initiatives already in place which may help to tackle slave labour in the supply chains of Brazilian companies supplying beef and timber to the UK.

These findings have formed the basis of a guide which has been created for supply chain managers and procurement professionals who want to tackle modern slavery in the global supply chains of the products they source.

The guide, and more detailed report findings, will be presented to supply chain practitioners, NGOs and policy makers at a workshop funded by the British Academy in London on 14 March.

According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index (GSI) on any one day in 2016, there were an estimated 369,000 slaves in Brazil.

Brazil is one of the most extensively forested countries in the world, with over 43 million hectares of forest. Brazil has, in turn, developed its large-scale industrial forest plantations to provide a sustainable supply of timber.

The UK is a net importer of timber, including pulp and paper, importing about 60% of its overall market requirements. In 2017 Brazililan exports to the UK accounted for 3.9% of Brazil’s total wood exports. Whilst there are currently guidelines and laws in place regulating the legaility and quality of products, there are currently no similar regulations in place relating to labour conditions.

In their annual modern slavery statemens, several UK timber companies describe a reliance on certification to ensure their supply chains are slavery-free.

Official figures suggest that instances of slavery in the Brazilian timber sector are scattered across states, with most rescue operations taking places in plantation cutting and processing in planted forests. This is because Government inspectors can more easily identify cases in formal plantations than native forests.

Corned beef from Brazil accounts for 89% of UK supply and is the single most important processed beef product. Companies in grocery retail have already developed a raft of policies, principles, standards, statements, handbooks and codes of conduct, but there is little evidence of their impact.

Upstream beef supply chains consist of breeding, rearing and fattening operations. Some ranchers carry out all three, but more often, cattle are moved between farms. This creates a complicated network of supply relationships. Breeders and rearers may supply others, while fattening ranchers frequently buy cattle from other areas. Debt slavery may be found in these areas, with workers finding themselves isolated and faced with poor lodging and working conditions.

In order to address these issues, experts looked at four initiatives attempting to combat slave labour in their supply chains in Brazil. Data was collected through interviews, workshops and supply chain mapping.

In-depth interviews were also carried out with Brazilian and UK informants from trade associations, NGOs, the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment, timber and beef companies and a timber certifier.

The initiatives were:

  • A firm level initiative run by Brazilian company Fibria in the timber supply chain that demonstrates the development of alternative sources of income for local communities.
  • Supplier development at supply chain level by Klabin - Brazil’s largest paper producer and exporter. The firm has attempted to use 100% certified wood in its production processes, which includes performance standards for working and labour conditions.
  • A GTPS firm-level multi-stakeholder initiative to introduce farmers’ self-assessment in the beef sector. The GTPS is a multi-stakeholder initiative bringing together stakeholders from across the beef industry including government and financial institutions, producers, service providers, restaurants, retailers, NGOs and universities. To drive up standards in the sector, the group has developed a self-assessment scheme for farmers.
  • JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, has worked with Brazilian-based NGO InPACTO, and the Brazilian information technology company Agrotools, to extend its existing social and environmental risk monitoring system.

The analysis of the initiatives found evidence of attempts to combat slave labour in the upstream supply chains of both timber and beef, however, these initiatives are patchy. Uptake is voluntary or limited to specific groups or communities.

Dr Caroline Emberson from the Rights Lab, an expert in supply chains and a lead researcher on the project, said: “Whilst these findings are encouraging and show that stakeholders are beginning to work together to develop the tools to meet the challenges faced by slave labour in supply chains, the development is scattered and inconsistent.

“There is no ‘one approach’ or a distinct set of approaches for companies to follow and with slavery a reality within the Brazil cattle and timber sectors, organisations are faced with real challenges. We are confident however, that this is just the beginning, we now need to continue to disseminate what we have learnt, spread good practice and to educate UK businesses on the risks associated with their extended supply chains.”

A full copy of the report findings can be found here.