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Cotton field

How we tackle forced adult labour

To date, forced adult labour has primarily been only an issue for our cotton supply coming from Uzbekistan.

Cotton is a key crop for this nation and it is fully controlled by the Uzbek Government. It became controversial due to its long term association with child labour and, more recently, adult forced labour. This occurs at the harvest stage as due to a lack of mechanisation, all of the cotton must be hand-picked.

Olam is against all forms of child and forced labour and we commit to ILO compliant labour standards across our supply chains. As one of the world’s largest cotton merchants, Olam is a member of the Association of Cotton Merchants in Europe (ACME). Key stakeholders, such as the ILO, together with ACME members, have for several years been actively promoting the importance of improving labour standards within the cotton sector to the Uzbek Government and changes have been witnessed in the reduction of child labour.

From 2008 to today, we have voluntarily reduced our purchase from about 10% to 2% of the available crop. However, along with other members of the Association of Cotton Merchants in Europe (ACME), we firmly believe that a complete withdrawal at this stage would be ineffectual, and would instead inadvertently undermine the advances that have been made, particularly as the Uzbek Government has not been short of other international buyers who
may have less interest in labour standards. While the NGOs quite rightly campaign and hold the Uzbek Government to account, through our minimal procurement, Olam is able to retain a level of access (through ACME) to apply both pressure and encouragement. Olam will continue to monitor the situation closely and take guidance from the ILO.

Developments during 2015

The ILO’s ‘Better Work Program’ was approved by the Uzbek Government in April 2015 to review current government labour standards and to ensure they are compliant with ILO conventions.

Formalising the employment sector meant that workers such as cotton pickers were able to obtain official labour contracts compliant to ILO and national standards. Through this process, working conditions were specified, helping to drive awareness amongst farming communities on health and safety, wage protection and grievance mechanisms.

However, as could be seen by the 2015 harvest, many challenges remain in the rolling out of the national standards in provincial areas where weak Governmental capacity and deeply engrained cultural norms make it difficult to implement improved labour policies.

It is also unclear how much volume is being or will be picked by the machines promised by the Government as part of its strategy to reduce labour dependence. Going forward, efforts from ILO and the Association of Cotton Merchants Europe (ACME) must be continued to ensure nobody is coerced into involuntary work to fulfil state-imposed quotas on national cotton production.

Olam fully recognises that change has not taken place as quickly as we had previously hoped. However, along with all ACME members, we remain unanimous that a united approach by the world’s leading cotton companies is the most powerful way to drive change and we can only do this by having access to the Government through procurement.

Other product supply chains

The only other supply chain where forced labour and poor labour practices has been raised in the industry was for Brazil coffee. In October 2015, along with the rest of the coffee industry, we were asked to complete a survey by the NGO Danwatch about labour practices. Danwatch asked about a particular supplier, Neuza Cirilo Perão, and we confirmed that we had been buying coffee up to 2012.

We had ceased buying from the supplier in 2013 when the Ministry of Labor placed this plantation on the official blacklist. All purchases prior to this were made in good faith and we had no prior knowledge of any malpractice. In 2015, we began the roll out of the Olam Supplier Code in Brazil and since 1st July, 100% of all coffee procured in Brazil has been from suppliers who have signed the Code.