Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Lesley-Lammers headshot

Vietnamese Drug Detention Centers Use Forced Labor for Cashew Processing

A new report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) entitled The Rehab Archipelago: Forced Labor and Other Abuses in Drug Detention Centers in Southern Vietnam, indicates that drug addicts being detained in government-run “rehabilitation” centers often double as forced-labor camps where detainees process cashew nuts and manufacture other exports in southern Vietnam under harsh conditions that sometimes involve physical violence and torture.

Detainees are usually held in such centers for two years on authority of police or local officials without any due process of law before or during detention. More often than not, center officials decide to hold detainees for another two year term for what they deem post-rehabilitation supervision. HRW’s 121-page exposé details the experiences of 34 people interviewed from 14 detention centers run by the Ho Chi Minh City authorities.

The report states that detainees who violate rules or refuse to work are often punished with electric shock, locked away in isolation, denied food and water, beaten or forced to work longer hours. Abuse and inhumane treatment of this nature is considered torture under international law. One former detainee who was interviewed, Quynh Luu, details his penalty for attempting to escape from a center, "First they beat my legs so that I couldn't run off again... [Then] they shocked me with an electric baton [and] kept me in the punishment room for a month."

The document explains that Vietnam has 123 drug rehabilitation centers which detain approximately 40,000 people, the majority of which are obliged to take part in what is considered “labor therapy” which most commonly means cashew processing. Vietnam is the largest global exporter of cashews, not to mention the U.S.’s biggest supplier. Processing cashews can be extremely demanding work and potentially damaging to one’s health, as cashew resin is known to burn or itch the skin and dust from cashew husks can irritate the throat and lungs. Detainees typically spend six to ten hours per day husking and skinning cashew nuts. They are often paid nothing. If they're paid a nominal amount it is often taken away by the centers for supposed room, board and other arbitrary fees.

Although women and children are also detained in such centers (and forced to do manual labor), the bulk of detainees tend to be young males who are combating heroin addiction. Not surprisingly, these centers have not proven to be effective at drug rehabilitation. Substitution therapy with prescription methadone is seen as the most successful form of heroin addiction treatment, yet the report claims that those interviewed were never given any such proper medical drug dependency treatment.

The report has already impacted decision-making at two companies doing business in Vietnam, according to this Time article. Switzerland-based firm Vestergaard Frandsen ended its partnership with five contractors in Vietnam when they discovered mosquito net production had taken place using drug detainee labor. Similarly, Oregon-based Columbia Sportswear Company ceased its dealings with a Vietnamese factory after learning that the factory had chosen to subcontract with a drug-detention center without the company’s consent.

Director of HRWs health and human rights division, Joe Amon, declares in a press statement, “Forced labor is not treatment, and profit-making is not rehabilitation. Donors should recognize that building the capacity of these centers perpetuates injustice, and companies should make sure their contractors and suppliers are not using goods from these centers.”

Lesley Lammers headshotLesley Lammers

Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

Read more stories by Lesley Lammers

More stories from Leadership & Transparency