Last updated: January 2014
Labour Rights Violations
Joanna Long looks at reports of labour rights violations in Rainforest Alliance certified tea production for Unilever in India and Kenya.
In the global tea industry, certification is big business. Between 2004 and 2009 the share of world tea exports certified by global standards systems grew by 2000%. In 2011, the proportion of worldwide tea exports that were certified was estimated to be 15%.
More than half of this share is certified by Rainforest Alliance (RA) alone. The rapid expansion of RA was enabled largely by being selected by Unilever as its preferred ethical tea label.
Given the commercial power of certification and the high industry standing of the Rainforest Alliance mark, SOMO in collaboration with the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), felt it worth investigating the actual reliability of RA certification.
Violations of labour rights found
SOMO is an independent research organisation that examines the activities of multinational corporations. Its researchers interviewed one hundred tea workers on a total of eight tea plantations, all supplying tea to Unilever. Seven of these plantations are in India and the eighth, which is directly owned by Unilever, is in Kenya. All of the plantations have RA certification.
The study, which was published in October 2011, claimed to have uncovered issues around the payment of wages, discrimination against female workers and health and safety. It also said that workforces in both India and Kenya were “permanently casual” and that the workplace-related human rights of freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were being hampered.
On Unilever’s own Kenya plantation, the researchers also heard allegations of sexual harassment, and gender and ethnic discrimination.
These issues violate national labour legislation and International Labour Organisation standards, as well as Unilever’s own code of business principles. They also violate RA standards and should have led to the removal of RA certification. The fact that it didn’t, in SOMO’s view, raises questions about the effectiveness and credibility of the RA standard.
Are Rainforest Alliance standards robust?
In particular, the report questioned the robustness of the RA’s social auditing systems, which it says were superficial and open to manipulation and bias. They also accused the RA of not enforcing their own standards by failing to insist that issues of health and safety, discrimination, wages and casual worker status be corrected.
While the report acknowledged that “no standard system could possibly guarantee a complete absence of workplace related problems” and that incidental violations or accidents do happen, it also pointed out that “most of the problematic working conditions in this study are not incidental but systemic in nature.”
“Based on this study’s findings we cannot but conclude that the RA does not seem capable of delivering any real guarantees on decent working conditions and that therefore they are not equipped to make such claims [that products have been produced ethically and with respect for the environment]; at least not about the tea plantations sampled for this research.”
Following publication of the report, Unilever denied knowledge of “inappropriate behaviour” on their Kenya plantation but promised to “take immediate action if there is evidence to prove that such behaviour has taken place.” They also said that an independent audit of their Kenyan plantation, carried out in November 2010 by the Sustainable Agriculture Network, “found no evidence” to substantiate the claims made in the SOMO report.
Regarding the Indian plantations, Unilever reiterated that these are operated through third party suppliers, which must comply with Unilever’s Supplier Code or face “serious action.” Unilever also defended the RA certification, which it described as “an important tool in working towards sustainability” and asserted the independence and freedom of RA auditors during their visits.
Rainforest Alliance responds
Following SOMO’s report, the RA carried out their own research audit but says it was “unable to confirm the non-conformance with standards reported by SOMO.” A spokesman for the RA said that they have “continually learned from independent assessments” and are “strengthening and improving” their work to ensure that they are “truly advancing human rights.”
Read the full SOMO report