Modern slavery and food: The unpalatable truth

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Child labour in the chocolate industry (screen shot via

Modern slavery and atrocities abound in food production but there are ethical alternatives. Bruce Keogh reports.

FOR MOST AUSTRALIANS, chocolate, coffee, snack food and prawns are staples of life — purchased in blissful ignorance of the atrocities often surrounding their procurement.

Most of these food items are either partly or wholly sourced from the world’s poorest countries, where human existence is commonly rooted in the supply of produce to satisfy the desires of the developed world.

Central to this blight are big corporations, some of which prey on the helpless impoverishment of these nations and allow systemic human rights violations in ruthless pursuit of cost minimisation. Forced labour, child labour, human trafficking and slavery are common. 

Chocolate, coffee, snack food and prawns can only be the tip of the iceberg in the consumer-driven Western world where the dubious ethics besmirching many everyday purchases remain unknown to – indeed hidden from – consumers at large.

Disturbingly, claims 45.8 million people are trapped in slavery today and 71 per cent of big businesses admit that unwittingly, there is probably slavery in their supply chains. Many multinationals are highly expert at cloaking their sinister activities in secrecy, which makes exposure of such unethical practices difficult.

Let’s imagine that a fairy godmother placed labels on every product on every retail shelf and every restaurant food item in Australia, indicating the ethics behind its deliverance. Would many Australians change their purchasing habits? The cynical answer is, probably not.

Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru over many years is testament that there is little empathy in the collective Australian heart for helpless and oppressed non-Westerners.

In 2016, Choice found:

… while many consumers say that they think it's important for brands and companies to behave ethically, our actual behaviour when we shop suggests otherwise. While many of us express pro-social and ethical attitudes, when it comes to the crunch plenty of us don't put our money where our mouths are when it comes to buying or investing in more ethical options.

For the purpose of this article, let’s just explore the tip of the iceberg: chocolate, coffee, snack foods and prawns.

According to western African countries – mostly Ghana and the Ivory Coast – supply more than 70% of the world’s cocoa for chocolate production.

Since the widespread use of child labour and slavery was exposed by a handful of journalists, the industry has become highly secretive, making it difficult for reporters to access farms where human violations occur.

In 2004, a journalist was allegedly kidnapped and killed for reporting on government corruption in the cocoa industry. In 2010, Ivorian government authorities detained three newspaper journalists after they published an article exposing corruption, with direct connection to the worst forms of child labour, human trafficking and slavery.

International chocolate giants earn profits in the billions, yet many blackmail cocoa farmers who earn less $2 per day — well below the poverty line. And so, farmers resort to the lowest forms of worker maltreatment.

Working conditions are inhuman, accommodation is meagre, and malnourishment is common. Access to sanitation and clean water is rare. Approximately1.8 million children in the Ivory Coast and Ghana are exposed to these conditions. Many have been taken from their families and may never be reunited.

On the equally disturbing subject of coffee, cites Ethiopia, Kenya, Vietnam, Uganda and Brazil as the world’s major coffee bean producers. Here, blights on the corporate world proliferate, as unethical behaviour eerily resembles the barbarity of the chocolate industry.

Snack foods may be palatable to munch, but unpalatable to swallow are the diabolical environmental and human costs often incurred in the acquisition of a key ingredient in many snack foods — palm oil.

Palm oil is found in ice cream, biscuits, chocolate products, instant noodles, cereals and potato chips, and many packaged products.

In 2007, Scientific American reported on an assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme predicting that orangutans will be virtually eliminated in the wild within two decades if current deforestation trends continue. One decade on, trends have not abated. Furthermore, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the Sumatran elephant are being driven to the brink of extinction. 

In Malaysia and Indonesia, 80% of deforestation has made way for palm oil crops. The felled timber has gone into furniture manufacture on a vast global scale.

The quest to satisfy the world’s taste buds knows no compunction. Over the last four decades, the total land area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown some 30-fold to over 3 million hectares. In Malaysia, it has increased 12-fold to 3.5 million hectares.

The Rainforest Action Network states:

Palm oil production is also responsible for human rights violations as corporations often forcefully remove indigenous peoples and rural communities from their lands. Tragically, child labour and modern day slavery still occur on plantations in both Indonesia and Malaysia.

If ever there was an inducement to insist on Australian prawns, this is it. A six-month investigation by The Guardian uncovered the rampant barbarism within the prawn trawling industry of Thailand, which is the world's largest prawn exporter.  

Slaves are forced to work for no pay for years at a time, bought and sold like animals and held on Thai fishing boats. These slaves suffer horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. One trafficking victim who managed to escape said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him — one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.

That The Guardian – with global reach – ran this exposé is a positive step in the quest to raise awareness of human trafficking and slavery — a subject given scant coverage in the media.

And there are more positive reports.

ABC News ran a story late in 2017 entitled, 'Modern slavery to be targeted in new laws recommended by Australian parliamentary committee', stating:

‘Australia needs a comprehensive suite of new laws to stamp out modern slavery, a Federal committee's report today tabled in Parliament has found … The committee recommended provisions for a mandatory supply chain reporting requirement that requires large businesses to report on modern slavery risks in their supply chains.’

In the United States, legal muscle is being flexed. (13 February 2018) reported:

‘Nestlé USA faces a fresh class action lawsuit in the U.S. for allegedly failing to disclose its chocolate brands may use cocoa from unlawful child or slave labour.’

Online resources promoting ethical purchasing are plentiful. Shop Ethical and Choice are excellent Australian examples giving comprehensive information and advice. 

Activism is powerfully promoted by the Walk Free Foundation, whose stated vision is to end modern slavery in our generation. Amnesty International is also very proactive.

Will the majority of consumers change their buying habits? 

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