Unilever opens its business up to Oxfam scrutiny

Posted by Leona Everitt Senior PR Manager

18th Feb 2013

Oxfam is pushing for businesses to take stronger action to ensure that the rights of workers in their supply chains are being respected.  The call comes after a study into Unilever's business operations found significant gaps between the company's high level commitments and the reality on the ground for workers. 

The two year study, carried out by Oxfam with Unilever's full cooperation, used the company's Vietnam operations as a case study to assess a range of issues affecting workers, including working hours, wage levels, stability of employment and relations between management and workers.  In Vietnam Unilever directly employs around 1,500 people producing home, personal care, and food products and has a sizeable supply chain. The company provided Oxfam with unprecedented access to its staff, operations, data and suppliers in the country: overcoming one of the biggest challenges facing NGOs researching this area.

Oxfam's study found labour issues which it says are too often endemic in global supply chains. In the supply chain, more than half of the suppliers interviewed were not clear about Unilever's expectations on labour standards and examples were found of low wages, excessive working hours and precarious work.  In Unilever's own operations, it found the assumption at headquarters that production workers are paid a living wage was not borne out.  Wages were found to exceed the legal minimum, yet workers reported that they could not meet their household needs.

Barbara Stocking, Oxfam chief executive, says: "Working conditions remain poor for many workers in the value chains of multinational companies around the world, despite the often good intentions of senior management. Low wages, long hours, weak systems of industrial relations and job insecurity combine to leave many of the world's poorest people in a precarious situation and undermines their efforts to work their way out of poverty.

"We hope this study will help Unilever strengthen this aspect of its business model and encourage other companies to revisit their reliance on compliance with national law rather than international principles, and to be open about the challenges in this complex area."

Unilever took part in the study as a means of stimulating a wider debate and encouraging other companies to face up to the issues in this area.  It has made a series of significant commitments to address Oxfam's recommendations, including a 'sustainable living review' in the 180 countries in which it operates by the end of 2015, a review of worker grievance mechanisms, and collaboration with others, including NGOs and trade unions, to integrate human and labour rights into its business. 

A full copy of the report can be found at oxfam.org.uk/unileverlabourrights 

ENDS

For further information, please contact Leona Everitt, Oxfam press office on +44(0)1865 472237 / +44 (0)7827 957337 / leveritt@oxfam.org.uk

Notes to editors

As the UN Framework on Business and Human Rights makes clear, companies have a responsibility to respect the human rights, including labour rights, of all people involved in or affected by their business. That is why Oxfam has campaigned over many years to ask companies to take action to improve the situation of workers in their global supply chains, and participates in multi-stakeholder initiatives which raise awareness and share best practice between companies, trades unions and non-governmental organisations, such as the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative and the global alliance Play Fair.

Blog post written by Leona Everitt

Senior PR Manager

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