5 lessons learned on how to conduct a Human Rights Impact Assessment

Tim Gore Food & livelihoods, Private sector

Oxfam recently conducted a Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) with Finland’s biggest supermarket. Tim Gore shares more.

Human rights abuses are widespread in global food supply chains – from forced labour on fishing vessels in southeast Asia, to poverty wages on Indian tea estates, and exposure to dangerous chemicals on banana plantations in central America.

Supermarkets are the powerful last stage in these chains. Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign calls for them to do much more to respect the rights of the people producing the food on their shelves.

We ask that they go beyond tick-box social audits of their suppliers, which often miss critical issues, and invest in robust processes of human rights due diligence using tools such as HRIAs.  Netherlands’ biggest supermarket, Albert Heijn, recently committed to undertake six HRIAs per year.

Last month Oxfam published a new HRIA of the Italian processed tomato supply chains of S-Group, Finland’s biggest supermarket. As far as we know, it is the most comprehensive such assessment conducted by a major food retailer to date.

Beyond the findings about the Italian processed tomato sector specifically, what can supermarkets that want to go beyond using social audits, like Albert Heijn, learn from the HRIA process itself?

1. The approach is scalable

The S-Group procurement arm, SOK Corporation, has over 30,000 supply chains, with regular supplier changes, so a scalable model of assessment was critical. We found ways to limit the scope of assessment to conduct it viably in around six months.

We focused on the production stage of the chain, looking in most depth at suppliers in the highest risk region of the country, and interviewed only a relatively small sample of workers. And we used a multi-stakeholder roundtable to gather inputs rather than only relying on one-to-one interviews.

Limiting the scope in this way was possible because there is already a plethora of studies on the Italian tomato sector. Where less is known about conditions, a much larger sample size of rights-holders would be required, as suggested in our community-based HRIA approach.

2. Access to stakeholders at all stages of the value chain is critical

Meaningful engagement with rights-holders is essential. It is vital to seek consent and ensure anonymity. Often this means collaborating with trade unions or civil society groups. You may need to hold interviews away from the workplace.

But this alone is not enough: researchers must have access to stakeholders across the value chain. When HRIAs only focus on dynamics in the sourcing country they can miss the significance of bargaining power relationships and purchasing practices in contributing to human rights risks.

Researchers must have access to stakeholders across the value chain.

SOK Corporation allowed us to interview junior and senior staff across their purchasing, quality, category management and sustainability teams, and encouraged their suppliers to participate. The result was a much more comprehensive analysis.

3. Commercial transparency is possible

SOK deserve credit for sharing commercial data with the research team. This meant we could assess the impact of pricing and purchasing practices on labour rights further upstream. For example, we identified a disconnect between declining prices to suppliers and rising labour costs on tomato farms.

Significantly, we found ways to include some of that commercial data in the final report – for example by using orders of magnitude and highlighting trends without revealing specific commercially sensitive price points that could contradict competition law.

4. Root cause analysis is the bridge between identified impacts and recommended actions

The HRIA explicitly sought not only to identify adverse human rights impacts, but also to explore their root causes. This is the missing middle in many HRIAs. Without a framework to assess the deep structural drivers of endemic human rights violations, recommendations are unlikely to be effective.

This kind of analysis requires a different set of analytical tools to other parts of an HRIA. Oxfam favours political economy approaches that can help to show how unequal bargaining power – either between buyers and suppliers, or between workers and their employers – can affect the human rights of the most vulnerable actors in supply chains.

5. The new OECD Due Diligence Guidance can help to resolve tricky questions

SOK made clear they did not agree with our judgement that the company ‘contributes to’ many of the human rights impacts we identified. SOK claimed the company is instead ‘directly linked’ to those impacts.

This may seem an abstract detail that makes little difference to workers’ lives. However, when companies fail to recognise their own role in contributing to human rights risks, they miss opportunities to prevent harm.

The new OECD Due Diligence Guidance can help stakeholders consider the extent to which companies ‘contribute to’ human rights impacts. Encouragingly, when this issue was discussed with SOK stakeholders, the company recognised the need to consider it further. 

From assessment to action

In their concluding remarks to the assessment report[SG1]  (included in the final chapter), SOK were clear that the study offered them a range of new insights, and that they would make a series of new commitments as a result.

Any HRIA should be followed by a public, time-bound action plan that responds to its findings and recommendations. It’s only when companies follow this through that any assessment process can make a difference for those facing exploitation to stock supermarket shelves.


Tim Gore