February 24, 2017

Forced Labour in the Global Sugar Industry

sugar man

By Ben Richardson, Associate Professor in the University of Warwick

Sugar and slavery are historically intertwined, and yet despite the emancipation acts that have formally ended slave labour, contemporary practices of ‘forced labour’ still haunt the industry.

Approximately 80 per cent of world sugar production is from sugarcane grown in tropical climates and 20 per cent from sugar beet grown in temperate climates. Forced labour has been located chiefly in sugarcane agriculture, usually among the gangs of manual cane cutters engaged in harvesting, rather than in the industrial mills which crush the cane and turn it into raw sugar. In its high-profile ‘List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor’, the US Department of Labor (2016) cites forced labour in the sugar industries of Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Dominican Republic and Pakistan. Yet such designations are not clear cut. For instance, a 2012 study on the Dominican sugar industry by the non-profit organisation Verité was used as evidence by the US Department of Labor in its ‘blacklisting’ decision. However, this study was criticised by academics for twisting data about the experiences of workers to conform to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention criteria on forced labour and for giving a misleading picture of the industry as a whole (Martínez no date; Bednarzik and Kern 2013).

Conversely, other academics have drawn attention to forms of ‘unfree labour’ which typically escape categorisation as forced labour. In the Indian sugar industry, debt is used by some sugar mills as a mechanism to recruit migrants to work in the sugarcane fields and to restrict their subsequent mobility, wages and bargaining power. Because of the pittance wages they receive many of these ‘bonded workers’ are unable to pay off their debt and so return year after year, reliant on informal employment relationships and living in makeshift camps hundreds of miles from home (Guérin 2013). Credible reports of prison labour used in the Fiji sugarcane harvest and of highly-restrictive ‘village-level visas’ provided to Burmese migrants in the Thai sugar industry also exist. Such examples illustrate the complex and contested nature of classifying concrete employment relationships as forced labour.

An exploitative labour regime

There are three aspects of the way that work is organised in sugarcane agriculture (its ‘labour regime’) which are conducive to exploitative employment, and, potentially, forced labour as well. These are:

1. Piece-rate payments. Many field workers in sugarcane agriculture are paid on a piece-rate basis rather than a day-rate. For cane cutters, this requires that they work long hours and undertake demanding physical toil. Partly because of this economic incentive many cane cutters want to exhaust themselves; another complicating factor in categorising certain types of labour as forced. Nevertheless, coupled with limited water breaks this intensity of work produces real health risks, including the development of chronic kidney disease and in rare cases even heart attack (Richardson 2015). The piece-rate system is compounded by the seasonal nature of sugarcane production where during the annual harvest there is a requirement to cut and transport the cane to the mill in a short amount of time lest the farmer go unpaid. ‘Forced overtime’ is a phrase commonly used in evaluations of the sugar industry (see US Office of Trade and Labor Affairs 2013).

2. Migrant labour. Foreign and domestic migrants are a common source of labour in sugarcane agriculture. Poverty and deracination are perhaps the most significant means by which these people are disciplined as labourers; the lack of economic alternatives and limited capacity to challenge injustices means they must often accept the conditions set out for them. As noted in the previous section, though, indebtedness and legal restrictions on individual freedoms have a role too. A recent report on India alleged that since migrant workers are hired as couples “girls are married before the legal age of 18” and “routinely face abuse and rape by landlords and middlemen who enslave them through debt bondage” (Chandran 2016).

3. Outsourcing. The use of subcontractors or intermediaries as recruiters tends to downgrade the institutional and legal protection afforded to workers. For instance, union representative is often low among this section of the workforce, leaving it more exposed to exploitation, while ‘contracts’ may be verbal only, leaving workers little recourse to contest arbitrary deductions made from their wages (see Sharma 2006 on this practice in Bolivia). Historically, intermediaries have also been involved in human trafficking, collaborating with border officials and transport agents to bring undocumented workers into a country. This was the case with Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic, though here as in other countries, my understanding is that trafficked labour is rarely found in sugar production today.

Eradicating forced labour

Arguably forced labour, as strictly defined by the ILO, has declined in sugarcane agriculture over recent decades. Part of this transformation can be attributed to the exposure to international norms of human rights that have percolated the global sugar industry; another important part being the mechanisation of agriculture which has significantly reduced employment of fieldworkers. Among those planned attempts to eradicate forced labour, two strategies stand out:

1. Strengthening national labour law. Against a backdrop of increasing exports and foreign investment, the Brazilian sugar industry has been a high-profile case in the struggle against forced labour. More than 10,000 workers were ‘liberated’ from ‘slave-like’ conditions in sugar production between 2003 and 2011. This has been attributed to the determination of inspectors in the Ministry of Labour and Employment to investigate rural employers and the legal powers held by the Labour Prosecutors’ Office to prevent companies subcontracting core tasks and holding them criminally responsible for any breaches of labour law. Alongside this, novel policy instruments launched by the government have created economic incentives to tackle labour abuses. The most important has been the ‘National Pact to Eradicate Slave Labour’, in which major retailers and banks made public commitments not to buy products or lend money to companies published on the Ministry of Labour and Employment’s ‘Dirty List’ of firms convicted of slave labour. Civil society organisations like Repórter Brasil were also involved and helped identify likely sources of labour rights violations and the supply chains that were affected. There were setbacks: some questioned its impartiality when the sugar miller Cosan sought a court injunction to get itself off the list just days after the Brazilian state bank had said it would suspend financing to the company and Wal-Mart planned to suspend purchases of its packaged sugar. Nevertheless, significant gains have been made in the country (ILO 2009; McGrath 2013; Richardson 2015; Sakamoto 2016).

2. Transnational supply-chain mapping. Prompted in part by civil society campaigns, among Western multinationals engaged in the sugar supply-chain there is increasing recognition that they ought to know how the agricultural commodities they source are being produced. To this end, a number have engaged in mapping their supply-chains, with some going further in terms of auditing their suppliers against company codes of conduct or encouraging them to become certified against the standards set by external organisations like Bonsucro or Fairtrade (which both insist on the absence of forced labour). One limitation of this approach, however, is that there are no mandatory requirements for buyers to suspend purchases from and/or provide remediating support to particular suppliers know to be benefitting from forced labour. Accountability is sorely lacking. Moreover, there may be little influence that they can wield beyond the first-tier supplier (i.e. the sugar mill). Another limitation is that some audits – even by independent specialists – appear to have been of poor quality, simply rubber-stamping sugar supply-chains as ‘sustainable’ (see Jesus et al. 2015). That said, academic research has shown how such private governance can interact with public governance to promote firm-level compliance with labour law, suggesting that strategies like transnational supply-chain mapping ought not to be evaluated in isolation (Coslovsky and Locke 2013).

After forced labour

An aspect of forced labour which has received less attention pertains to its legacies: what happens after emancipation? In the short-term, one risk is highlighted by research from Brazil which found that, out of desperation for money, some individuals liberated from forced labour with one employer in sugarcane agriculture returned to work with another (Richardson et al. 2009). In the medium-term, a different kind of problem can be seen in the Dominican Republic, namely the lack of citizenship and/or residency for the ‘stateless’ Dominican-born children of undocumented Haitian migrants first brought to the country to work in the sugar industry (see Martinez 2012). Related to this, the undocumented workers that have since retired have apparently been unable to access the state pensions because they cannot prove they were making social security payments (Bracken 2015). Finally, longer-term issues include the structural effects on employment practices, such as the reconstitution of gendered and spatial strategies to disempower labour in the Mozambican sugar industry that have drawn on the historical use of forced labour by British sugar planters (Lazzarini 2016), and, of course, the question of reparations for slavery. In the decade following the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, this latter issue has once again resurfaced in British consciousness, demonstrating perhaps the most important thing about sugar in this context: its imprint on the public imagination of what slavery is, and how it should be ended.

sugar cane


Bednarzik, R. and Kern, A. (2013) ‘Methodological Assessment of Research on Indicators of Forced Labor in the Supply Chain of Sugar in the Dominican Republic by Verité’, submission to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 4 June 2013.

Bracken, A. (2015) ‘Blood, Sweat and Sugar: Trade Deal Fails Haitian Workers on DR Plantations’, Al Jazeera America, 16 July 2015.

Chandran, R,. (2016) ‘Sexual Abuse Plagues Female Workers on India’s Sugarcane Fields’, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2 August 2016.

Coslovsky, S. and Locke, R. (2013) ‘Parallel Paths to Enforcement: Private Compliance, Public Regulation and Labor Standards in the Brazilian Sugar Sector’, Politics & Society, 41: 4, 497-526.

Guérin, I. (2013) ‘Bonded Labour, Agrarian Changes and Capitalism: Emerging Patterns in South India’,Journal of Agrarian Change, 13: 3, 405–23.

International Labour Office (2009) Fighting Forced Labour: The Example of Brazil. Geneva: ILO.

Jesus, D. F., Genevieve, O. and Richardson, B. (2015) ‘Violations of Labour and Environmental Law by Sugarcane Mills in Sao Paulo State, Brazil’, Ethical Sugar Discussion Paper, May 2016.

Lazzarini, A. (2016) ‘Gendered Labour, Migratory Labour: Reforming Sugar Regimes in Xinavane, Mozambique’, Journal of Southern African Studies, forthcoming.

Martínez, S. (no date) ‘Comment on Evidence Relating to Forced Labor in Dominican Republic Sugar’ submission to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs.

Martinez, S. (2012) ‘Allegations Lost and Found: The Afterlife of Dominican Sugar Slavery’, Third World Quarterly 33: 10, 1855–1870.

McGrath, S. (2013) ‘Fuelling Global Production Networks with “Slave Labour”? Migrant Sugar Cane Workers in the Brazilian Ethanol GPN’, Geoforum 44, 32–43

Richardson, B. Lehtonen, M. and McGrath, S. (2009) ‘An Exclusive Engine of Growth: The Development Model of Brazilian Sugarcane’, Ethical Sugar Discussion Paper, January 2009.

Richardson, B. (2015) Sugar. Cambridge, UK and Malden, US: Polity.

Sakamoto, L. (2016) ‘Using a ‘Dirty List’ to Clean Up ‘Modern Slavery’ in Brazil’, openDemocracy, 13 September 2016.

Sharma, B. (2006) Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Bolivia. London: Anti-Slavery International.

US Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (2013) ‘Public Report of Review of U.S. Submission 2011-03 (Dominican Republic’, 27 September 2013.)

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