Round-table discussion on improving working conditions in international food supply chains serves as catalyst to increase knowledge sharing

Published on
March 26, 2019

On Thursday 21 February, Wageningen Economic Research joined parties from the public and international private sector for a round-table discussion on working conditions in international food supply chains. Willem Ruster, sustainability management in agriculture and food, Birgit de Vos, senior researcher of human rights due diligence, and Christine Plaisier, researcher of inclusive value chains, reflect on the gathering.

Ruster: "We specifically chose to invite people from a wide range of sectors. These people often face the same challenges, regardless of sector."

What we realised is that there are still many gaps in what people know and how big the problem is. The primary challenge is what you can do about it afterwards. What can you influence? What’s beyond your reach?”
Willem Ruster

Plaisier is enthusiastic about how the meeting went: “There were 17 guests in attendance. We felt that it was very important to share and describe our experiences, insights, and knowledge. Can the ‘bigwigs’ with experience join forces with the ‘little guys’ with less experience, and are the opportunities even there at all? We only managed to scratch the surface, but we also had the flexibility to adapt to the audience. Our goal was primarily to establish something that everyone needs.”

This topic is relevant to all different kinds of organisations and to the sector as a whole. According to De Vos and Ruster, there is a pressing need to share knowledge and insights. Ruster: “If you look at the private sector, then it involves a specific position in the chain (trade, production, retail, funding) and whether the business is large or small. Major players were represented at the discussion, but so were smaller operations. From the public sector, there were representatives from government bodies, SER, and NGOs. Everyone looks at things from a different perspective.”

Ruster himself is primarily active in connecting the various sustainability topics and effects. Ruster refers to De Vos as their “in-depth specialist”, because her projects always address themes such as child labour, exploitation, and slavery. During the round-table discussion, De Vos presented several of her projects in those areas:

During the round-table discussion, we showed what we have going on, but we also want to see what we can learn from each other, what kind of needs exist, and how WUR can respond to those needs.
Birgit de Vos

Paperwork truth

De Vos says that while the desire to completely eliminate child labour and slavery is certainly present among businesses, it is not always explicitly stated. In Ruster’s opinion, one reason for this is that as a business, you have limited influence. Some companies — whether they be retailers or producers — already purchase large quantities of a certain resource in a country, but it only involves 5-10% of sales, so there is little to be done about it. It is often closer to 1% or less of what is purchased. There are companies that have been working to improve this problem since the 1980s. According to Ruster, a business’ purchases and sales may be 80% certified, so everything is in order on paper. However, nobody knows the actual impact caused by this certification and effort which has been in place since the 1980s: “You’re only dealing with how it looks on paper, the paperwork truth.”

On the one hand, the meeting confirmed what many already thought, while on the other, new lessons and ideas were shared. De Vos: “There are a great deal of initiatives and many are already under way. Even though we only hold similar discussions every 10 or 15 years, we have already come a long way. There are insights into what works and what does not as well as what can be done individually and with partners. For example, there is a lot of data, but if you keep asking questions, you’ll find that a lot doesn’t add up. The data cannot be linked to other data or it doesn’t find its way to the right people. There is a need to share information and to present it in the proper way. We know what we have to do, but it is still difficult to actually do this at to take the required steps at the local level.”

Measuring, monitoring, and brainstorming

According to Ruster, WUR can provide support by being analytically involved (measuring and monitoring) and by helping to come up with effective improvements for the problems: “We can map out the problem, regardless of whether it involves cacao or coffee. How big is the problem? Is it slavery, child labour, or underpayment? What can you do about it and how can you intervene?” Plaisier agrees:

WUR is in a position to look at the big picture and the stubborn reality that one must operate within in order to then take a position as an independent research institute.
Christine Plaisier

Ruster adds that it is also important to look back at previous interventions. If they didn’t have the desired effect, then you have to look at whether there are alternatives that could have greater impact.

Measuring is knowing

Plaisier views it from the perspective of impact: what effect is caused by specific actions intended to improve working conditions? Plaisier: “There are many good initiatives and everyone in the supply chain has been asking a lot of questions. You have to deal with regulations from start to finish and all types of platforms are created, but ultimately, you want to be able to measure what the effects are before you begin answering questions about whether or not we are on the right track.”

Learning from each other

People from the public and private sectors were given the opportunity to meet others working on the same theme and, thus, were able to expand their network. They also came to learn more from WUR and from each other. During the round-table discussion, WUR summarised what it has been working on in this area for years. Ruster: “This round-table discussion was a great step towards learning where we stand on this topic and we are going to actively explore how we can make a positive contribution to this theme as WUR. Information must be provided and shared in better ways and there need to be improvements reinforced by support and impact.”

Starting a dialogue

The round-table discussion is viewed by its organisers as a means of starting a dialogue. The next step is to assess whether there is interest in order to come together again and explore the subject further. Ruster suggests that a theme be highlighted or that they look at one specific product from the sector level. Given the gaps in the knowledge that became clear during this gathering, there may be ideas for pre-competitive research. The first question for WUR is whether it can play a role in bringing missing information to the surface. Ruster: “If WUR cannot provide the information, will we be able to specify what must be done in order to find it?”