Prayer of the refugee: how labour abuses are feeding the world

With the New York Times exposing the extent to which brands such as Nutella have been reliant on refugee labour to work farms they source hazelnuts from, Callum Tyndall and Rosie Lintott examine how such labour abuses are still deeply tied into the production of popular foodstuffs.

Agricultural labour has a problem: while steps have been taken in recent years to enable a more fair system for globalised food production (Fairtrade etc.), the food industry is still rampant with labour abuses. And as consumers become increasingly conscientious in their purchasing habits, the reliance of producers on such abuses to provide their raw ingredients can only be expected to take a serious toll on their bottom line. If only from a commercial basis, manufacturers would do well to make sure their production process falls more closely in line with the ethical consumerism of their target markets. 

In April, the New York Times revealed that Syrian refugees were working on Turkish farms that produce 70% of the world’s hazelnuts for Nutella, Godiva and Nestlé under backbreaking conditions for negligible pay. Hazelnuts however, are far from the only produce being gathered under unethical conditions; organisations like Slave Free Chocolate are fighting to eradicate the use of child labour and child slavery in the cocoa farms of West Africa. A hard truth that both consumers and manufacturers have to face is that, currently, some of the most popular foodstuffs in the world are the product of labour abuse. 

Turkey’s troubled hazelnut supply chain: corporate buying power and vulnerable workers

Given their shared border, it is unsurprising that Turkey has become home to a great number of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria. In fact, according to the UN Refugee Agency’s Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018, Turkey has hosted the largest number of refugees worldwide for five consecutive years with a total of 3.7 million recorded last year. According to the New York Times, roughly 3.4 million refugees from Syria alone have entered Turkey since 2011. Unfortunately, while they may have escaped the horrors of war, the new life open to many of them has offered few ethical work opportunities.

As Richa Mittal, director of innovation and research for the Fair Labor Association, which has done fieldwork on Turkey’s hazelnut crop, told the New York Times, “In six years of monitoring, we have never found a single hazelnut farm in Turkey in which all decent work principle standards are met. Across the board. Not one.”

Relaxed labelling protocols and a lack of transparency are two factors posing a risk to human life

We have never found a single hazelnut farm in Turkey in which all decent work principle standards are met

In essence, the work is long, hard, and poorly paid. Due to Turkey’s Labor Code, and the lack of legal protections for refugee workers, much of the policing of whether or not these farms are running to standard is left to the companies buying up their stock. Despite their efforts, monitoring the vast net of independent farms, the work of which said companies are entirely dependent on, is an incredibly difficult task. Vulnerable workers are suffering, but there is not sufficient supply outside of Turkey for the companies to make a dramatic shift in sourcing. 

The matter is complicated further by the companies’ buying power. While there may not be the concentrated stock of hazelnuts outside of Turkey for them to easily switch sourcing, due to the largely small and independent nature of the farms, the companies are still able to largely dictate terms to the farmers. Add in unregulated middlemen and you have a situation in which, at some point, almost everyone actually involved in the farming is getting squeezed. Unfortunately, it is the most vulnerable who end up suffering to the greatest extent.

Economic instability fuels child slavery in the chocolate market

The Cote d’Ivoire government-run Conseil du Café-Cacao (Coffee and Cocoa Board) had been looking after farmers since 1955 by putting a minimum price at which they could export their cocoa. However, 1999 saw the industry become privatised and cocoa prices began to decline. With prices continuing to fall into 2000, the country saw increasing poverty and reduced healthcare spending from the government. This economic downturn and subsequent decline in living standards caused a ‘widespread use of cheap child labour’, according to Slave Free Chocolate.

The economic problems for cocoa farmers are compounded by a disconnect from broader communication; most farmers are isolated on small farms and unable to communicate with each other about market prices. Furthermore, such isolation leaves them far from the world market and the potential benefits, or at least knowledge, of free trade and commodity brokers.

It’s going to take something massive to change what’s happening

In this manner, cocoa producers are always at the bottom of the distribution chain when it comes to being paid for their work, as there haven’t been steps taken to give cocoa farmers stable and sufficient prices for their cocoa. Stuck receiving only half the average global price for their cocoa due to exploitation by middlemen, cocoa producers turn away from paying legitimate workers and instead resort to child slave labour. As economic depression continues, so too does the spread of slavery.

Ayn Riggs, director of Slave Free Chocolate, says, “It’s going to take something massive to change what’s happening and the main branded wholesalers’ [involvement] for the problem to go away”.

94% of survey respondents were likely to be loyal to a brand if it offered complete transparency

Italy’s criminal element and the darker side of capitalism

It is perhaps unsurprising that the mafia has a hand in such abuses. While the above examples are arguably the result of systemic failure rather than any particular malicious agent, Italy is witnessing organised crime take a very deliberate hand in the exploitation of migrant workers. The Global Slavery Index estimates that, in 2016, there were roughly 145,000 people living in conditions of slavery in Italy. The country’s largest agricultural worker union, FLAI-CGIL, reports between 400,000 and 430,000 workers with irregular visa status that are vulnerable to exploitation. There may be as many as 50,000 agricultural workers currently working and living in conditions amounting to slavery.

Slavery in the 21st century doesn’t need chains, because they exploit a continual sense of intimidation

Organised crime has sunk deep roots into the exploitation of immigrant labour in Italy. From asylum centres to day-labour contracts, the mafia maintain involvement at every stage of possible exploitation. The workers themselves, poor and desperate for work permits and similar paperwork, are stuck in a system that simply looks to extract the most money with the least care. Unfortunately, although there is a significant criminal element at work, blame doesn’t stop at the door of the mafia.

Much like in Turkey, the situation in Italy has in some ways been attributed to the darker side of capitalism. As corporations and retailers seek to eke maximum profit out of their suppliers, they ultimately push those suppliers to more exploitative labour to maintain their own profits. And with established mafia presence and interest, that leads to your tinned tomatoes being produced by a system hopelessly entangled in criminal ownership and worker exploitation. 

Yvan Sagnet, a Cameroonian anti-slavery activist, told the Guardian, “When you have been enslaved, it’s such a strong thing that your head begins to reason differently. It’s not the slavery of hundreds of years ago, when you were deprived of your liberty. Slavery in the 21st century doesn’t need chains, because they exploit a continual sense of intimidation that the most vulnerable people, like immigrants, feel.”

Share this article