Child labour, poverty and terrible working conditions lie behind the sugar you eat

Child labour, poverty and terrible working conditions lie behind the sugar you eat

Reach for a packet of sugar in the café, browse the shelves at supermarkets, or take a look at the packaging of your favourite sweet treat, and you are likely to see the Fairtrade label. What’s more, the UK’s Modern Slavery Act requires large companies to publicly report on the steps they take to ensure that forced labour is not a part of their products. The EU’s non-financial reporting requirements broaden out from modern slavery to include many issues related to social responsibility and human rights.

Provisions such as these, as well as a multitude of corporate social responsibility programmes and industry specific commitments, have been put in place as measures to correct the longstanding social risks and challenges faced by the people who produce the goods we consume. To deepen our understanding of the status of those risks and challenges, our team has, for the past nine months, taken a close look at the sugarcane consumed in the UK.

About 25% of the UK’s sugar comes from sugarcane imported from outside the EU, while the rest comes from sugar beet grown in the UK and other EU nations. Consequently, given the prevalence of the Fairtrade mark and supply chain reporting requirements, most of us are likely to have the impression that sugar is produced in a socially responsible way.

But unfortunately, serious problems including forced and child labour, poverty, and dangerous heat-related illnesses persist in today’s sugarcane industry.

In 2014, Fairtrade International discovered that children were working during school hours on certified farms in Belize, in direct violation of Fairtrade standards. Fairtrade suspended the certification of the entire Belize programme while the local industry worked to address the problem and the programme has since been reinstated. Belize, a Commonwealth country bordered by Mexico and Honduras, has long been a key provider of sugarcane to the UK market – in 2016 it accounted for 14% of UK imports of raw sugarcane. Yet, that same year, while the Belize sugar industry was already making considerable efforts to eliminate child labour within sugarcane, the United States Department of Labor (US DoL) found that the country as a whole had made minimal progress in eradicating the worst forms of child labour, including within sugarcane.

As fair as it seems? chrisdorney / Shutterstock.com

Another report by the US DoL also documented child labour in sugarcane in Guatemala and El Salvador, which together provided 14% of the 2016 UK supply. This means that child labour was documented in countries that supply nearly one-third of UK sugarcane in 2016. Additionally, the US DoL found forced labour in Brazil (12% of the UK supply). Previous research suggests that this is a recurring problem in this nation, even among operations that are certified by the rigorous Bonsucro production standard, which uses six principles to achieve environmental, social and economic sustainability in the production of sugarcane.

The hunger crop

Sugarcane is known as “the hunger crop” due to the low prices paid to farmers and low earnings among workers. Because they earn so little, those producing the sugarcane we consume – and their children – are often forced to go without adequate food and nutrition.

Our preliminary research indicates that even among Bonsucro-certified sugar mills in Minas Gerais, Brazil, where workers are paid at least a legal minimum wage, their earnings fall considerably short of the living wage required for a decent standard of living. Agricultural workers earning the lowest entry level wage of, on average, just 1,079 Brazilian reals per month (£223) (exclusive of benefits or overtime earnings) are R$334 (£69) short of the living wage benchmark. This means they are likely to have to choose between necessities such as food, housing and health care, and they are unlikely to have any money in reserve for emergencies. In other words, they are financially precarious in the best of circumstances.

Sugarcane. Carl Davies, CC BY

Further, most of the UK’s sugarcane imports come from places where people living in rural areas are multidimensionally poor. Multidimensional poverty is an acute experience of poverty in which a person is simultaneously severely deprived in three key areas: health, education and living standard (in terms of sanitation, electricity, etc.).

Health risks

In 2015, public health researcher Jennifer Crowe published a paper outlining findings from a study conducted with sugarcane harvesters in Costa Rica. They found that harvesters were regularly exposed to heat stress because the recommended temperature limit for safe outdoor manual labour was typically reached by 7:30am during the harvest season – yet the working day lasted until 12pm.

Exposure to heat stress is a critical issue within the sugarcane industry, and agricultural work in general, because it can have devastating health impacts on the body. Crowe’s study found that workers experienced heat and dehydration symptoms at least once a week, ranging from headaches to elevated heart rates. Other research has found links between long-term exposure to heat stress and deadly chronic kidney disease among sugarcane workers.

Workers harvest sugarcane on Mauritius. Hannes Grobe, AWI, CC BY-SA

Using climate data and GIS mapping of sugarcane producing regions among some of the UK’s key import partners, our preliminary research suggests that risk of heat stress is a common problem for sugarcane harvesters. Maximum monthly temperatures during the harvest period regularly exceed the recommended safe limit in the countries that we assessed: Belize, Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius and Jamaica.

Using data

Our team, in a project funded by the N8 AgriFood Programme, undertook research into the social risks and challenges within the UK’s sugarcane supply chain. Our goal is to add social factors into supply chains models that help agriculture and food companies understand the globalised impacts of their business models (examples include IOTA and Trase). These models are designed to work as tools for spurring companies to take action when problems in their supply chains are identified.

Collaboration with industry and other stakeholders is crucial to achieving positive change in the sugarcane industry. But consumer demand and pressure are critical as well. Working together, consumers, academics, civil society and industry can improve social conditions for sugarcane workers and those across the agricultural industry and beyond.

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