Fairness in the workplace

This work supports the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Good Health and Wellbeing
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Reduced Inequalities
  • Partnership For The Goals
  1. Home
  2. ...
  3. Fairness in the workplace
  4. Understanding our human rights impacts

Understanding our human rights impacts

To make sure we’re respecting – and advancing – the human rights of everyone in our value chain, we need to be sure we understand our impacts.

Tea farmer

Addressing endemic human rights issues & their root causes

We know that human rights abuses exist in the sectors and markets in which we operate – and at times, in our own value chain. These abuses are unacceptable. We’re committed to respecting human rights, which means we need to understand what issues we face, and where.

Identifying our salient issues

In our inaugural Human Rights Report (PDF | 5MB) in 2015, we explained how, and why, we identified our eight most salient human rights issues.

With these in mind, we prioritised the need to address human rights impacts across our own operations and extended supply chain. We describe our progress in our second Human Rights Report (PDF | 10MB), published in December 2017.

Many human rights challenges are systemic. We are therefore committed to working in collaboration with others, including governments, businesses, labour and civil society organisations and NGOs to address them.

We want to move away from a traditional ‘compliance’ approach to one of ‘social sustainability’. This means identifying and addressing root causes, effective and timely remediation, capacity building and an incentives-based system to drive the move from ‘do no harm’ to ‘do good’. Gaining greater clarity of our social footprint is particularly important as we plan business expansion: this knowledge helps us create clear, focused plans to address opportunities and identify specific actions or improvements.

Eradicating forced labour & human trafficking

person icon

ILO’s estimate of people trapped in modern slavery in 2016

We identified forced labour and human trafficking as a salient issue for our business in 2014. Since then, we’ve included guidelines on preventing forced labour and human trafficking in our policy framework, including in our Human Rights Policy Statement, our Code of Business Principles, our Code’s Respect, Dignity and Fair Treatment Policy, our Responsible Sourcing Policy and our Responsible Business Partner Policy.

Following the publication of our first Modern Slavery Statement (PDF | 3MB) in January 2017, we published an updated Statement (PDF | 2MB) in April 2018. The Statement covers Unilever PLC and Unilever N.V. and their group companies, with reporting companies proceeding with their own board approvals according to the Act. It is endorsed by our CEO, Paul Polman, and we will share our progress in yearly update statements.

“When it comes to eradicating forced labour, there’s no time to waste."

Marc Engel

Marc Engel, our Chief Supply Chain Officer.

“All over the world, victims of forced labour are coerced or deceived into jobs which they cannot leave. Forced labour can take many forms, but each time someone is working or providing a service against their freedom of choice and cannot leave without penalty or the threat of penalty, it’s forced labour.

We've strengthened our efforts to eradicate forced labour through a number of activities, in our own business and through collaboration with others. Our Modern Slavery Statement (PDF | 2MB) explains the steps we’ve taken to prevent, detect and respond to slavery, human trafficking and forced labour throughout our business and extended supply chain. We’ve defined a roadmap to strengthen our efforts and we’re supporting it through training programmes to build capacity. It’s a fundamental principle of our Responsible Sourcing Policy that work is conducted on a voluntary basis.

At the same time, we realise that it will take a collaborative approach to eradicate forced labour from global supply chains. We’re a member of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), which is helping to drive work in this area, including advocacy and capacity building. In December 2016, we supported the CGF’s Three Priority Industry Principles. These were produced to help prioritise action on the primary drivers of forced labour within the consumer goods industry and beyond.

We’re also working with our suppliers: over 2016–2017, around 1,000 suppliers were trained in Turkey, Dubai, India, Bangkok and Malaysia on eradicating forced labour and responsible management of migrant labour, including those in our extended supply chain.”

For more details, see Working with others on human rights.

Respect for land rights

Land is the basis of millions of people’s livelihoods. Legal or customary rights to land protect those livelihoods and provide a platform on which many forms of sustainable development can be built. That makes it vital that we are aware of the impact that our business can have.

Land rights

Land rights are a salient issue for all aspects of our business, including operational considerations such as the siting of factories or offices. But it is our extended supply chain that gives rise to the most opportunity to have a positive impact in this area, as well as the most risk.

Respect for land rights is part of our overall policy framework and is one of the 12 Fundamental principles of our Responsible Sourcing Policy (PDF | 9MB)

In 2017, we created Land Rights Principles and Implementation Guidance. Beginning with our own operations, we’re using awareness-raising and capacity-building materials to roll out these Principles and Guidance.

For example, Unilever successfully bid for a Rwandan Government concession to set up a tea processing factory and commercial tea estates that will support extensive smallholder tea development in South West Rwanda. This project will transform one of the poorest areas of Rwanda by creating around 1,000 jobs and providing financial and agricultural support to smallholder farmers, who will provide 70% of the tea produced.

The land for the core estate and factory site is leased by Unilever and was expropriated by the Government for the project. As a condition of the bid, we required that land acquisition and resettlement would be implemented in line with International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards, in particular Performance Standard 1: Assessment and Management of Environmental and Social Risks, and Impacts and Performance Standard 5: Land Acquisition and Involuntary Resettlement.

We worked closely with the Government during their expropriation process. We used external experts to independently verify that the Resettlement Action Plan (including the Livelihoods Restoration Plan and Grievance Mechanism) properly ensured that potentially affected persons and communities were identified and engaged. This included a risk-mapping plan and a socio-economic survey focusing on vulnerable groups to ensure that no one in local communities is left worse off by the project.

New model villages with infrastructure were constructed by the Government, together with livelihood support programmes. Unilever gives priority for employment to people affected by the project. Due diligence around this work is ongoing and we’ve put in place a local Unilever Welfare Manager to work with communities and local authorities.

Human rights in the tea industry

As our tea supply chain connects us to workers and communities in some of the poorest places, we can play an important role in addressing the human rights issues that exist in the global tea supply chain.

In 2016, we carried out a social footprint mapping exercise of our tea supply chain. This enabled us to create a plan to address improvements based on the level of traceability we have for each sourcing location, the human rights risks in each location, and the procedures in place to respond to identified risks. The combined approach we have developed for our tea supply chain – analysis, risk assessment and willingness to remedy issues ourselves or in collaboration with others – serves as the basis for our approach to other ingredient supply chains.

We also continue to work with certifiers such as Rainforest Alliance to strengthen the prevention, identification and remediation of social issues. We’re doing this by developing targeted interventions in key tea-producing countries.

We recognise the issue of low wages in the tea industry and continue to work with the Ethical Tea Partnership, Oxfam, IDH and others to look at sustainable solutions for tea industry workers.


Tea Ethical partnership

The Ethical Tea Partnership in action

“Working with the Ethical Tea Partnership enables us to share our experience and work with others to tackle both the environmental and social issues, such as working conditions and human rights, to deliver change at scale.”

Mick Van Ettinger, our Executive Vice President for Beverages.

Many endemic human rights issues are best addressed through collaborative partnerships. In 2017 we joined the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), an umbrella organisation which brings together the world’s most influential international tea businesses to drive improvements in sustainability and the lives of tea workers.

We’re working with ETP on a range of projects, including improvements in housing and sanitation for suppliers’ tea workers in Assam, increasing wages, enhancing safety and best practice sharing around model estates and worker empowerment committees. A key area of our future work will be an assessment of working conditions for hired labour on smallholder farms.

For more information, see our Human Rights Report (PDF | 10MB).

Ensuring grievance mechanisms are effective, trusted & used

Alongside worker representation, effective grievance mechanisms play an important part in hearing the voices of workers in our business and throughout our supply chain. This is the third element of the United Nations Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework and remains a vital focus of our work.

Grievance mechanisms open channels for dialogue, problem solving and investigation, and, when appropriate, providing remedy. We use grievance mechanisms to help us identify wider trends, so we can develop country-specific solutions and pre-emptive actions to prevent negative impacts. Safeguarding the rights of everyone to raise a concern or grievance is vitally important and we will not accept any type of retaliation.

More information on our grievance mechanisms can be found in Advancing human rights in our own operations, Advancing human rights with our suppliers & business partners and our Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP) (PDF | 9MB).

Willing to listen, learn & improve

We welcome stakeholders who contact us with their concerns and aim to be open in our response. We realise that in running a business of the size and scale of Unilever, we will not always get things right. We want to hear from people who have concerns, learn from our mistakes and make improvements that help us make a positive social impact.

It is an approach that is embedded in our business values – Our Code of Business Principles commits us to running our operations with honesty, integrity and openness. We aim always to investigate, understand and discuss any issues of concern and respond. Given our size and the long reach of our supply chain, some of the issues people raise are complex. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address them – but where issues are systemic or endemic, we don’t claim to have all the answers, and often we need to work with others to resolve them.

We discuss some of the issues that stakeholders have raised with us on our website, in What matters to you. These include stakeholders’ concerns about a breach of our environmental operating guidelines at our former thermometer factory at Kodaikanal, India and over safety for women in our tea plantations in Kericho, Kenya. Our work to advance human rights in Kericho is also discussed in our Human Rights Report 2017 (PDF | 10MB).

Working with the OECD to resolve issues

We support the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which provide voluntary principles and standards for responsible business conduct in a variety of areas, including employment and industrial relations. The Guidelines take the form of recommendations addressed by governments to multinational enterprises.

The OECD’s conciliation process

OECD National Contact Points seek to resolve issues through amicable discussion to the satisfaction of all parties involved – a process the OECD describes as conciliation.

If conciliation fails, complaints are referred to the second stage in the process – mediation – in which an independent facilitator takes a more formal role in brokering an agreement.

Should this also fail, the national contact point issues a statement or makes a recommendation. Inherent in the OECD process is an investigation of the facts in order to validate the substance of the complaint.

Between 2006 and 2009, four complaints were brought to Unilever’s attention by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), all relating to our operations in India and Pakistan. These complaints concerned site closure (Sewri factory, India), freedom of association and collective bargaining (Doom Dooma, India), and the use of temporary and contracted labour at our factories in Pakistan (Rahim Yar Khan and Khanewal). A further complaint was submitted by the Turkish transport union TUMTIS in 2008.

The unions referred their complaints to the OECD’s National Contact Points in the UK and Turkey for investigation. Each of these cases was resolved. Since these cases we have we have implemented a range of actions across our business, including the development of guidelines and training, a review of our use of contract labour, and more dialogue with our stakeholders.

Back to top


We're always looking to connect with those who share an interest in a sustainable future.


Get in touch with Unilever PLC and specialist teams in our headquarters, or find contacts around the world.

Contact us