Slavery in Food Production

What would you do if you knew that some food items you usually buy were produced using slave labour? I am referring to ones we do not grow locally, such as sugar, coffee and chocolate.

Illustration by Ainsley Ashby-Snyder,

Access to the internet means that if we want to know the origins of the food we consume, we are only a few clicks away from finding out. To start with, there is an engaging website called Slavery Footprint, where we discover that most of us in the first world have slaves working for us. Other websites focus specifically on slaves in the food industry. I am not just referring to poor labour practices that migrant farm workers continue to experience. This is about how first world consumers buy food items that originate from real-life conditions of slavery, where a human being is forced to work through mental or physical threat, is owned or controlled by an ‘employer’, is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold as ‘property’, and is restricted in freedom of movement.

Let’s start with sugar. Thousands in Latin American countries work in sugar cane fields, including many children. Desperately poor people will do any kind of work, but unfortunately, sugar workers find themselves under constant threat of physical violence, as well as receiving little pay or often nothing. The work is dangerous–cutting dense canes with a machete up to 14 hours a day in the sun, and when they get injured from cuts, gashes and severed fingers, there is usually no medical attention given to them. Sleeping quarters are crowded, with no water or toilet, and often patrolled by armed guards. Such exploitation of workers is what keeps sugar prices competitive. In knowing about these abusive labour practices, this sugar is the antithesis of sweet.

Another slave labour food is fish, especially if it is from South East Asia. Many of these slaves are captured from villages in Cambodia and Burma, and sold by traffickers to Thai fishing captains. Usually, under international law, the responsibility for sea vessels is with the country under which the ship is registered, however, the government of Thailand does not require captains to register their crew. If the worker was forced to sign a contract they have not read, they become fishing slaves.

Child slaves in the shrimping industry in South East Asia work in muddy parasite-infested waters to capture baby shrimp. Or, they work in sweatshops 20 hours a day without pay, where they are beaten with sticks, branded with red hot irons, burnt with cigarettes, starved, whipped, beaten while hanging upside down, chained up, and kept in cupboards for days. A cry for mother will lead to more punishment. Many adult workers are trapped in bonded labour, forced to endure long hours for pitiful wages and always with the threat of violence. It is our first world appetite for shrimp [as cheaply as possible] that perpetuates these horrific human rights abuses.

And now to coffee. It is estimated that 1.6 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day, according to the International Coffee Organization. Perhaps because coffee makes the world go round, more and more people have been made aware of the exploitative labour practices in the coffee industry, as well as environmental impacts of growing coffee. That is why it is now possible to enjoy a cup of fair trade coffee in cafes all over the world. However, there are still popular coffee brands that refuse to use fair trade labour.

The situation is much worse in the chocolate industry. So many people are unaware there is enormous misery and despair behind our chocolate treat. It is estimated that about 1.8 million children are involved in the production of cocoa in west Africa. Sometimes, children are sold by their desperate parents to traffickers, or, they may have been stolen from their parents. In either case, these unlucky children are then sold as slaves to cocoa farms where they are brutalized by a gruelling 80 – 100 hour work week, are barely fed, rarely paid anything, are beaten regularly to keep them in line, and even more viciously if they try to escape. To verify these horrid truths online, just plug in the words ‘chocolate slavery’ to find an extensive and informative website.

According to an online 2010 BBC documentary called Chocolate, The Bitter Truth, on a good day on Wall Street, a half million dollars can be made dealing in chocolate. Another documentary called The Dark Side of Chocolate actually filmed the widespread practice of trafficking children to work on cocoa plantations. Whether traffickers, plantation owners, and chocolate companies, all these industry stakeholders are focused on profit, and therefore maintaining slavery in chocolate production is the way they like it.

But we consumers are also stakeholders. Chocolate is a special treat, a long-time symbol of first world hedonism. If we are morally outraged by the misery of chocolate slavery, we can choose to vote with our dollars, which makes both a political statement and promotes a more compassionate world. As informed parents, our conscience obliges us to ensure that our child does not raise money for a school field trip by selling chocolate produced by children their own age who are slaves! Chocolate holidays now have a new meaning.

No one wants to be held against their will, treated without dignity, held captive with no freedom to move, or be hurt by cruel people every day. Once we know the facts about the supply chain of our favourite foods, we can make decisions that not only affect what we eat, but who we support. If we want to stand behind an independent, democratic decision-making fair trade organization, look for the Fairtrade International symbol (FLO).

The times we live in demand difficult conversations. If we long for a sense of unity, as our mystical traditions teach, we must have the courage to look at the actual reality of our existence instead of basking in our illusions. The Golden Rule still applies, urging us to take action to end violence and oppression of any kind. Humans are being called to learn compassion, which is the way to heal the collective wound that keeps us separated from one another. The ugly truths of our existence, as exemplified in slavery, have the potential to motivate us towards kindness.

Tsiporah Grignon is a Gabriolan of 38 years, and considers herself “an old foodie”. She is a keen observer of our times, through looking at geo-politics, and through her study of Evolutionary Astrology, which offers in-depth insights into our potential as compassionate human beings.