The Food Shackle

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Despite encouraging progress over the last few years, the food industry is still very much affected by the deeply rooted human trafficking and child labour epidemic. Is it time to point our finger or work together? By Wong Tsz Hin

As a couple strolled casually along the frozen food isle at the local supermarket contemplating cooking ideas for the weekends, something caught their eyes—a discount on ready-made shrimp wontons. These would make a perfect treat after a gruesome shopping trip! With little hesitation, they dropped a pack into their shopping basket before continuing on with their grocery hunt.

Little would they have imagined that thousands of miles away, squeezed into the corner of a small, almost insufficiently equipped fishing boat, a Burmese man is struggling to stay awake while mending a fishing net deep into his 20-hour shift just off the coast of Thailand. For all his hard work, he would get a little bit of food to keep him alive and a less severe beating.

Across the continent, groups of children not even 10 years of age are busying themselves at cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast under the sweltering heat to harvest raw materials for a product that they would likely never be able to afford.

On the drive home, the couple opened a box of chocolates from a reputed multinational brand. As they munched away on the creamy, delicious snack, they, like many of us, have inadvertently contributed to the deeply rooted human trafficking and child labour epidemic that is affecting the food industry.

Media reports in recent years have cast the spotlight on this ugly but undeniable truth that has been often concealed by the prosperous front of the food manufacturing industry, which has remained defiant to economic downturns.

While the public have been quick to point fingers at food manufacturers, who are frequently accused of turning a blind eye to obvious human rights violation in order to safeguard their huge profit margins, there are other factors and elements at play that make the issue much more complex than it is commonly perceived.

Who exactly is to be blamed? And most importantly, what kind of intervention and measures can be implemented to eradicate this chronic problem?


Zoriah, Paris, France

Forced labour is defined as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

According to statistics from the International Labour Organization (ILO), there is a minimum of 20.9 million people in forced labour around the world at any given time, with the Asia Pacific region constituting a majority of the volume at 11.7 million. The next most affected region is Africa with around 3.7 million people.

Forced labour in the private economy is estimated to generate US$150 billion in illegal profits per year. ONE (SINGAPORE) estimated that the annual profit made from trafficking in Asia is around US$10 billion.

ILO stated that about 90 percent of forced labour in the world today is exacted in the private economy, primarily in labour intensive industries such as manufacturing, agriculture and food.

The definition of child labour on the other hand is less clear cut, resulting in a large grey area that can be meticulously exploited. ILO considers child labour to be “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.”

Contrary to popular beliefs, child labour does not simply refer to any form of work performed by children.

In fact, work that contribute to children’s development and the welfare of their families, as well as those that provide them with skills and experience to make them productive members of society in the future are regarded as being positive.

ILO estimated that 168 million children between the ages of five and 17 are currently working under conditions that are considered illegal, hazardous or extremely exploitative. Across the world, the agricultural sector has by far the greatest share of child labour at 59 percent. Almost 70 percent of child labourers are unpaid family workers.

In the last decade, Asia has achieved remarkable success in curbing child labour. Between 2008 and 2012, the region witnessed a sharp decline in child labour from 114 million to 78 million, most likely as a result of better established infrastructure, improved economic conditions and better education of the people.

Major Media Exposures

Prachanart Viriyaraks, Bangkok, Thailand

In 2014, Thailand’s shrimp export business took a huge hit after the Guardian published a damning report on the infringement of human rights by fishmeal producers in the country.

The report accused Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods of buying fishmeal, used to feed farmed shrimps, from suppliers that operate fishing boards manned with slaves. Besides enduring long work shifts, regular beatings and torture, the slaves, most of them migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar and Cambodia tricked by the pretence of employment in factories or constructions, were also offered drugs and subjected to execution-style killings.

The report caused a chain reaction with major retailers across the world, including Walmart, Costco, Tesco, Carrefour and Ica, quickly dissociating themselves from the Thai company and removing its products from their shelves. The incident also led to the revisit of previously reported human rights malpractices by Thai seafood companies.

Prior to that incident, the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF) documented child labour, underpayment and withholding of identity documents by Narong Seafood, and the Human Rights Watch reported on similar practices by Phatthana Seafood. In addition, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center released reports showing the terrible working conditions of shrimp processors in Thailand and Bangladesh.

ILRF said that at the end of 2013, there were an estimated 3-4 million migrant workers in Thailand, 80 percent of them coming from Myanmar, who were made to work in dangerous and dirty environments. The organisation also noted that Thailand has voted for a non-binding recommendation, but said no to the binding protocol proposed by ILO to supplement the 1930 Forced Labour Convention before reversing its decision a few days later.

Thailand and the seafood industry are not the only guilty parties. The prevalence of child labour in the cocoa industry has already been well documented. In 2011, CNN, as part of its Freedom Project, discussed the issue of enslaved workers in the tomato industry of the US.

Supply & Demand

Caezer Ng, Canada

Most forced and child labourers originate from poverty stricken parts of the world. Driven by economic needs back home, they become vulnerable to false promises made by traffickers or business owners who often sold them on the idea of employment with decent remuneration.

In Ivory Coast, many children are forced to start working at a young age to support their families. Many of them are aware that the additional income they bring in are essential for the survival of their families. However, at the tender age of 12, or even as young as five, they lack the understanding that the tools they use and the environment they work in may be detrimental to their well-beings.

The children are made to handle dangerous tools such as a machete, and perform hazardous activities like climbing cocoa trees to cut bean pods, or carrying heavy sacks of pods. In addition, they are constantly exposed to harmful chemicals without any personal protective equipment. Most of the time, they are only provided with the bare minimum for food and the simplest housing facilities.

ILO said that approximately 1.8 million children in Ivory Coast and Ghana are exposed to the worst form of child labour on cocoa farms.

The main reason that business owners from the agricultural sector have to resort to forced and child labour lies in the slim margin that they make. On average, cocoa farmers in Western Africa are said to earn less than US$2 a day.

Even as the retail price of end consumer products increases, the price of raw materials has continued to diminish as major corporations assert pricing pressure on suppliers through massive produce orders. As a result, businesses had little choice but to redirect the pressure to their farm workers in order to survive.

It also does not help that most of the agricultural works are labour intensive and seasonal. The harsh working conditions and physical demands of these jobs have made them less appealing compared to other professions. Coupled with the little amount of wages that the supplier can afford, the availability of ‘cheaper alternatives’ become very enticing even if they involve illegal practices.

The seasonal nature of farming means that there is little incentive for owners to employ a large number of permanent headcounts. Many a time, owners only require workers for certain periods to handle the more tedious work. The lack of job security and stability further weakens the owners’ position in the employment market.

Government Intervention

It is easy and natural for consumers to direct their accusation to the end of the supply chain, the retailers, in hopes that it will create a ripple effect that channels all the way down to the raw material level.

In response to such public pressure, retailers would isolate themselves from the human rights violators, in this case, the food manufacturers who have sourced materials from questionable suppliers, as part of their crisis management. And in turn, food manufacturers may sever ties with the suppliers.

As ILRF has pointed out, this eagerness to break the connections between the relevant parties can have detrimental effects as companies are not exercising their responsibility by washing their hands off the problem.

Although major food retailers, distributors and manufacturers these days claim to have surveillance across their entire supply chain to ensure compliance with the regulations and standards, actual implementation can be difficult because of the span of operations geographically and the multitude of smaller and harder-to-regulate players that are involved. In most cases, there is an element of good faith that business partners further up the chain have exercised their due diligence.

It is no coincidence that most of the areas affected by human trafficking are those that have very little regulatory framework and low level of vigilance. Forced and child labour remain undetected because of two fundamental issues: the lack of a proper reporting channel and the lack of government intervention.

Many workers, for fear of personal safety, are unable to report their abuse simply because they do not know how to or where to. It is also important to establish a stringent legal framework that will identify and punish any human rights violator, and provide a voice for workers to fight for their rights in terms of treatment and salary packages.

Profit Sharing

There is growing cry for companies to start eradicating the forced and child labour issue at the grassroot level by tilting back the scales of economic injustice and closing the disparity in profit distribution.

For a start, there is an immediate need to achieve a balance so that farm owners will not be operating a borderline profit margin. The next step would be to ensure that the extra money is properly redistributed to improve the lives of the workers.

To this end, major corporations are making inroads to develop local support programs that can benefit local farmers and their families. However, their lack of transparency and commitment level mean that results remain to be seen.

For any of the programs to be effective, there must be greater governance over the protection and movement of workers. That has been a niggling issue as the governments of the countries where forced and child labour are most prevalent are often reluctant to compromise on the availability of low cost materials and cheap labour, which have served as major attractions for foreign investments.

The Asia Pacific has made great strides at the turn of the millennium to address the issue of forced and child labour. It takes all the relevant parties to work together, and not independently, to build on the good work and protect those who are vulnerable. It is not a finger-pointing process, but one in which we must work hand in hand.