Every country in the world (thankfully) officially bans the practice of slavery. However, it is estimated that 27 million people are current victims of human trafficking. Many people are forced into slavery, like wage theft and debt bondage, and many of those slaves are employed in the food and agricultural industry.
There are several reasons why slavery and trafficking are still huge issues in the food processing and agricultural industries. One of the main reasons is that agricultural work is often isolated, transient work that relies heavily on migrant workers. These conditions leave those workers in a vulnerable position to be exploited. Low paid migrant workers are incredibly vulnerable to forced work.
This exploitation ties in with the competitive nature of the food and agricultural industries. In order to remain competitive on the global market, labor contractors often supply cheap slave labor. Often slave labor comes from poorer countries, where people need wages, and contractors exploit those needs.
Although some of the foods processed using slave labor stay in the local market, much is still winding up being sold internationally, and some of it is ending up in United States markets.
One of the biggest offenders is the Thai shrimp market, which is the biggest supplier of shrimp to the United States. For example, one of the largest suppliers of shrimp to the US is Narong Seafood, which has an ugly track record of labor abuses. The shrimp processed from slave labor at Narong is often supplied to Walmart.
A Guardian investigation found that slaves were an integral part of harvesting shrimp that wound up in stores like Carrefour, Costco, and Tesco. Another Associated Press investigation found that shrimp peeled by slaves were winding up in a variety of popular US stores and restaurants. In fact, seafood produced through slaves all over the world can be found in US markets.
Even in the United States itself, debt bondage and wage theft are issues. Mainly in Florida, tomato farm workers are subjected to harsh labor conditions and wage theft and exploitation. Other companies in the United States have abused temporary workers by illegally deducting wages.
In order to combat modern-day slavery in the food industry, steps need to be taken by both governments and companies to prevent abuse. Organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have been vital to bringing abuses in the United States to light, but organizations like CIW are lacking globally.
Corporate accountability is key to prevent labor abuses. Although many US companies say they do not employ slave labor, many often do not enforce those practices. Supply chains are complex, and corporate buyers might not check which suppliers they purchase from.
After being apart of a lawsuit regarding child labor on their suppliers’ cocoa farms, Nestle, the largest chocolate supplier, invested in assessors to map supply chains on cocoa farms to prevent labor abuse. Better mapping of supply chains might help corporations develop knowledge of where and when abuses are occuring in their supply chains and help prevent those abuses from continuing.
Although the issues of modern-day slavery within the agriculture and food industries are complex, there are steps that could be taken that would prevent these gross human rights violations from continuing. You can take action now by joining the Alliance for Fair Food and pleading to boycott restaurants that maintain labor abuse.