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Blog | 03/05/2020 08:00:50

Listening to workers’ and farmers voice in Tapioca starch supply chain in Thailand

To advance decent working conditions in one of our high-risk supply chain in Thailand, we interviewed 500 workers and farmers about their working conditions.

Tapioca starch is a raw material used in paper production. There are several farmers who supply Tapioca to our suppliers which increases the complexity of this supply chain on a high-risk area like Thailand.

“Understanding the local conditions is crucial to ensure that we address the most salient issues in our supply chains. We have worked to understand the challenges farmers may face in Thailand for many years together with our suppliers and external experts,” says Tuomas Sovijärvi, Vice President, Raw Materials Sourcing at UPM.

Our suppliers in Thailand are committed to UPM Supplier and Third Party Code. Our clear requirement is that people involved in our supply chains are treated with dignity and respect. Responsible business conduct is assured by conducting extensive supplier audits and working together with our suppliers who are equally committed to promote decent working conditions at the farms supplying their factories.   

“Most of the Tapioca farms are family owned. It is typical that the entire family helps out at the farm. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for us to make sure that all school aged children go to school and thus carry out only limited light work,” Tuomas Sovijärvi explains.

UPM conducted an extensive survey at one of our Tapioca starch suppliers, SMS Corporation and the farmers supplying the starch to SMS. The aim of this survey was to promote decent working conditions and to increase transparency on workers’ voice. The survey was conducted in Chaiyaphum, a province 300 km Northeast of Bangkok. The new technology used in the survey guaranteed full anonymity of the respondents and enabled collecting a great amount of workers’ opinion at one time.

Simple, fast, and safe way to implement the survey

“We run this extensive survey with WorkAhead – a Finnish start-up that has developed a smart phone based technology supported by videos guiding the respondents in their own language,” notes Nina Norjama, Director, Social responsibility at UPM.

The survey covered questions about working and living conditions, such as working hours, wages and access to water and electricity. The special focus was on safety in the factory and young workers helping out at family farms.

Workers and farmers are satisfied with their working conditions

“We conducted the survey in June 2019 with more than 500 participants - almost 300 of them being factory workers and approximately 230 farmers. The results were in line with the results from the earlier third party audits conducted at the factory.” Overall, 88% of factory workers and 85% of farmers are satisfied with their living conditions, including access to clean water and electricity. The majority of respondents would recommend their workplace to others.

Even though SMS has taken many actions to improve safety, 40% of factory workers have still concerns about their safety at work. Working with machinery and chemical safety were named as areas to be developed most. Some of the farmers were worried about their children’s ability to balance between helping at the farm and attending school. Also, pesticides used in farming and their potential health risks were noted.   

Continuous development needed

“We are excited about this project, as it was the first time our workers’ and farmers’ opinions were asked so systematically. The survey itself was a positive experience; it was easy to answer, video and the guidelines were clear, and the questions were valid”, tells Khem Wanglee, Managing Director at SMS Corporation.

The survey results offered a good opportunity for SMS to discuss with their workers about the importance of safety and the use of personal protective equipment. SMS is also committed to improve the conditions at the farms. Their dedicated “farmer development team” has started to assess further the conditions of young workers at the farms and is committed to address any potential issues.

“Improving working conditions in the supply chain is persevering work and requires co-operation between different actors in the value chain. We continue engaging our stakeholders in Thailand and strive for continuous improvement, particularly in the case of young workers”, Tuomas Sovijärvi, summarises.


Text: UPM