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Leon Kaye headshot

Companies Urged to Tackle Forced Labor Abuses in Sugarcane Industry

By Leon Kaye

The coalition behind KnowTheChain, which strives to eradicate slavery and forced labor from companies’ supply chains worldwide, has taken on another industry: sugar.

According to a recent report, food and beverage companies including Hershey, Mondelēz, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola all face varying degrees of risk throughout their sugarcane supplier networks. Joining those firms are major commodity suppliers such as Archer Daniels Midland and Wilmar, which KnowTheChain says are also exposed to these problems within their supply chains – often because these companies lack transparency about discussing where and how they source their sugar.

This survey follows similar studies KnowTheChain has completed that analyze forced labor across other industries’ supply chains, such as information technology, apparel and the wider global food industry. In addition to actions taken by other human rights NGOs, KnowTheChain has convinced companies as diverse as Marriott, Michael Kors and Ford to take stronger action in order to stop their suppliers from turning to forced and bonded labor.

Among the reasons why more food companies have become susceptible to such risk, especially here in the U.S., is the non-GMO movement. As more food companies decide to sidestep potential state and federal regulations by slapping a non-GMO label on their products, many of them are scrambling to find alternative sources of sugar. An NPR report last year estimated that half of all U.S. sugar is processed from sugar beets – and those crops are almost exclusively from GMO seeds. From consumers' point of view, the result may appear to be a more sustainable supply chain - for the worker denied wages or buried in debt due to fees owed to a recruiter, the outcome is a very different story.

Hence there is a shortage of cane sugar, which often means sourcing from the world's two largest suppliers of sugarcane, India and Brazil. KnowTheChain says evidence shows some producers in those countries have grown and processed sugar using bonded or forced labor – and the same goes for small sugar producing nations such as Guatemala, Pakistan, Bolivia, Pakistan and the Dominican Republic.

The report was not a compete indictment of the food industry. All of the 10 companies highlighted in the report disclose at a minimum where parts of their sugarcane supply chains are based. Coca-Cola, for example, presents stakeholders a map so they can see where the ingredients harvested for the companies’ beverages are sourced. But KnowTheChain’s researchers also accused Coca-Cola of not delivering on a 2013 promise to disclose all of the companies’ direct sugarcane suppliers by 2016. Singapore-based Wilmar, however, lists the name and addresses of its sugarcane suppliers. And PepsiCo, Nestlé and the U.K’s Associated British Foods were found in the report to making more of an effort to assess forced labor risks within their supply chains.

But to KnowTheChain, and the estimated 45 million workers worldwide entrapped in slavery, these small steps in disclosures together comprise progress that is far from sufficient. Many of these companies talk about conversations, commitments and partnerships with human rights NGOs in order to make their sugar supply chains far less sour for the workers who toil within them. KnowTheChain, however, concluded the report with this searing criticism:

“No company in the case study was able to provide an example of remedy offered to workers in their sugarcane supply chains—an indication that this is an area where companies still have a long way to go.”
Image credit: Lou Gold/Flickr
Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye