All entries for February 2017

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.)

February 11, 2017

Understanding Gender and Development: Conversation with Professor Diane Elson

Interview by Madiha Shekhani and Maria Olsen

When deliberating on the topic of gender equality, the ground-breaking contributions of Professor Diane Elson cannot go unnoticed. She has authored pivotal pieces such as Male Bias in the Development Process (1995), Budgeting for Women's Rights: Monitoring Government Budgets for Compliance with CEDAW (2006), and Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers (1981) in collaboration with the notable scholar Ruth Pearson. Her work has been truly ground-breaking and inspirational. Her research has focused on global social change and human rights, with a particular emphasis on gender inequality in the economic and social realm. Prof. Elson has been a member of the UN Millennium Project Taskforce and Advisory Committee member for the UNRISD Policy Report on Gender and Development. She is also one of the founding members of the United Nations Development Fund for Women’s (UNIFEM) report on Progress of the World’s Women. In addition to her impressive list of achievements, she served as the vice president of the International Association for Feminist Economics as well, and has been named one of 50 key thinkers on development in 2006.

Formerly Professor of Development Studies at Manchester University, Prof. Elson is currently an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. After countless years of service Prof. Elson has retired, yet she continues to hold an active and influential position within the field. Her rather busy retirement period involves contributing to the UK Women’s Budget Group, advising UN Women, and being a member of the UN Committee for Development Policy. She continues to publish on matters focused on fiscal policy, gender equality and human rights.

Prof. Elson came to the University of Warwick to deliver the Annual IPE lecture on ‘Gender Inequality and Economic Inequality’. After her riveting talk, members from the Think Development team had the wonderful opportunity to interview her.

Maria: Why do you think gender is relevant for development? Why is it still given only marginal importance and treated as more of a niche issue that only feminists need to deal with?

Elson: It's relevant I think because all societies, all economies, all polities are structured by gender, sometimes visibly and sometimes not so visibly. So the kind of development a country has, who makes decisions about it, who benefits from it, the distribution of those benefits, all those are gendered.

It is something that we all need to deal with for two reasons. One is the issue of the distribution of the costs and benefits between different members of households: you miss a lot if you do not look inside them to see what differentiates women and men. The other is that if you don't do a gender analysis of policies you don’t see the impact of those policies. Everyone needs to recognize the different ways that men and women, boys and girls, will be interacting with policy, based on the gendered structure of that society and that economy.

Maria: Often these debates within the Gender and Development (GAD) framework do not take into account intersectionality - the diversity of the experience of inequality, varying contexts, diversity of feminisms. How important are these factors to take into consideration? How could they be possibly translated into policy?

Elson: We all have multiple positionalities. We are involved in multiple kinds of social and economic relations: class, gender, race, location, age, ability or disabilities. But then how do we take that into account? There are some challenges. One challenge is that there is much more data and statistics available on some dimensions of our positionality than on others. So you've got information challenges.

And you've got challenges about what to highlight and prioritize because we don't want the analysis to disintegrate into multiple disaggregations. I learnt a lot from feminists in South Africa. We have to have an intersectional analysis, but how to do that? Well, we can ask of every policy measure, what implications these have for the most disadvantaged person, who is a black South African woman in a rural area. If it doesn't do anything to help her, it's not doing anything to help the most disadvantaged person.

Maria: With rise of different feminisms across the world especially in the South, do you think the depiction of the third world woman in dominant GAD narratives has changed?

Elson: Perhaps I'm not up to date with all reading material that you are now looking at in your course because I've been retired from teaching for five years, so I've not kept up with the literature. I think that there has always been a tension, and there probably still is, between a kind of Northern liberal feminism which has a bit of a missionary attitude towards other women, towards women in the South, towards working class women and women of a different ethnicity in their own country. So that tension I think probably still continues to some extent. But I think that tension is characteristic of a particular kind of Northern feminism, which has been quite varied. I would always describe myself as a socialist feminist, and therefore the kind of work that I wanted to do was to analyse what capitalism meant both for women in the country in which I was living, but also for women in other countries where new forms of capitalism were developing.

I think we certainly always need to be careful when we’re privileged women in a university, not to presume we can speak on behalf of others. So, we always have to be aware of that, but it does not mean we cannot be critical. Think of all those women in the USA who voted for Donald Trump, despite all that was revealed. We have to understand why that happened. Another thing I remembered writing about in the past was the issue of son preference in some countries in Asia. Son preference is very strong and it's mothers and mothers-in-law who are as important as fathers, in enforcing son preference. So you have to understand why women are in a situation where they think, "I only want to have boys, or my first born must be a boy, and when I have boys and girls, it's the son that will get the preference". We have to understand why women are in a position where that makes a lot of sense to them, as well as how can we change the structures that are pushing them in that direction.

Wherever we're from, if we believe in women's rights, we want to contest practices like the son preference but not contest them in a way that fails to understand why women are in a position where they might be colluding in the oppression of other women or even themselves. So it's the structural factors we must identify. And then of course, there is usually some kind of discontent somewhere. What can we do to support women who are voicing discontent and who are organising and struggling?

Maria: Are international organizations and governments still stuck in the Women in Development (WID) phase and haven’t moved to the GAD framework?

Elson: Probably a lot are still stuck because I think it's easier for them to understand. They do not have to rethink their whole understanding of the society, the economy, the polity. They can say, "Maybe the women aren't benefiting, maybe we can add a few projects specifically for women and then we've done our bit". It requires deeper thinking and changes to think, "Maybe it's not just that we need to add on a few projects for women, maybe we need to rethink our economic strategy, maybe we need to rethink the way we organise political life. Maybe we should take some affirmative action. Maybe listen to more women’s voices." It is always easier to add on a few policies that we can say are benefitting women.

On the other hand, I think there has been growing recognition that it’s important to think more broadly. In some countries there has been a wide understanding that a policy like increasing the minimum wage and implementing it is a really important gender equality policy even though it's not labelled as one. Since women are concentrated at the lowest wages, if you can raise the minimum wage, and really implement that . . . of course men will benefit too but women will disproportionately benefit because they're the ones with the lowest wages. I think Brazil is a country that saw that and really did a lot to improve the minimum wage and the enforcement of the minimum wage. When people ask me about gender equality priorities, I say increase the minimum wage and make sure companies pay it!

Madiha: The UN's gender and development initiatives have been criticized for not taking into account root and structural causes of inequality. What would your opinion be about this? For instance campaigns focus mainly on highlighting successful role models, as opposed to shedding light on underlying structures within different societies that inhibit women.

Elson: The first thing I'll say is that the UN is a very big organisation. There are very many different views and voices - different things are done in head office, in different departments, in different countries so it is by no means monolithic. There is a lot of diversity.

I think perhaps what you're pointing to is that some people in UN Women, and indeed in many organizations, think it's really important to have good role models – you know, the woman who made it, the singer, the sportswoman, the CEO as a role model for younger girls to aspire to. I don’t want to rule that out, I think role models can be very important but neither do I think that it is sufficient. I am an advisor to the report that UN Women produces every two years, called Progress of the World Women. In fact, I was the first person to initiate this in the days when the UN women’s entity was UNIFEM – a much smaller organization, much less resources but with a visionary leader from Singapore called Noeleen Heyzer, who invited me to develop this report. This report has always had some examples of good role models but also a lot of emphasis on the structural constraints that women face.

Madiha: Do you think transformation through the UN is possible? What are the limits of the UN or any international body?

Elson: Sure, the UN has a lot of limits, a lot of contradictions, disfunctionalities, and problems. But what do I see as the really important thing about the UN as a whole? I think it’s the focus on universal human rights, and the recognition that women’s rights are human rights. The UN came to recognise that through the pressure of women’s organisations around the world in the 1990s. The emphasis on universality doesn’t mean ignoring differences, whether these are differences between gender, race, indigenous people, rich or poor, North or South. It means recognizing a differentiated universality; where we don’t elide these differences, but we say nevertheless, despite all these differences everybody has human rights. For me that is the most important thing about the UN.

That system is under threat. With the rise of authoritarian leaders that come to power via the ballot box – we’re not in the era of the generals seizing power anymore, we are in the era of authoritarian leaders that win the vote – I think that’s a real challenge for what we can do to ensure human rights for everybody, everywhere taking account of the differences.

Coventry has a good example of the importance of human rights in women’s struggles: Coventry Women's Voices, an organization that has been doing great work on the impact on women of austerity policies and all the cuts to social security and public services, putting this in a human rights context and saying “We've got these rights, but they are being denied!”. The language of rights, rather than the language of needs, is a powerful one. For me that's what's important to hold on to in the UN. Even though none of this is a panacea or a magic bullet, but I do see all around the world different civil society groups organised around these ideas of the rights they are demanding, and therefore from that point of view I think the UN is important and we are going to need to defend it!

Madiha: We see systems such as the neoliberal framework so solidly entrenched within society; it is presented as though there is no alternative to it. We see a gradual and very strong internalisation of all these narratives. How do you move past this?

Elson: It’s never been the case that all women have been feminists or that all women have campaigned for women’s rights or that all women have overtly voiced a discontent. So we have to understand the reason why that is. I think there was a survey in the UK that said that there were a large number of women thought that if a young woman goes out in a short skirt at night and has a few glasses of wine, it’s her own fault if she gets raped. So probing that, understanding where those ideas come from, that’s why we do social science, isn't it? To help us ask those questions, to help us interrogate and understand where these ideas come from.

Madiha: In your book Male Bias in the Development Process, you mention crucial things about the language of subordination, focus on rights instead of capabilities, and male bias in everyday attitudes and structures. You wrote this back in 1995 - how far do you think we have come? Has there been change? What is the value of this change?

Elson: There has been a lot of change but it is not unidirectional. Perhaps it is a bit of a cliché, where you go two steps forward and one step back, but I think there have been a lot of positive changes. You can even see some of that in data on girl’s education, maternal mortality falling -even though it’s far too high in too many countries - and there are more women in political office. So we do see some positive changes. But, as Ruth Pearson and I wrote in our study in the 70s, Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers, it's complicated because on the one hand, you get these changes which challenge and decompose old structures of overt patriarchy, but at the same time we have seen a recomposition of new forms, more subtle forms of gender inequality. Yes, you can get a job in the garment factory and you think that’s good because now you’ll earn your own money for your dowry, or your wages will put your brothers through college! But in that factory there is not only a class hierarchy but a gender hierarchy. You will have difficult working conditions that will challenge your health, you will be open to sexual harassment both in the factory and on the way to and from the factory. So you get a complex change in which some overt forms of patriarchy decline, and other new forms of what we call subordination of women emerge. It doesn’t necessarily take a directly patriarchal form but a more diffused form of gender inequality.

But to end on an optimistic note I was heartened to see this massive mobilisation of women, not only in the USA but also around the world outside American Embassies and consulates. There were other women standing in solidarity with their banners and I think that was very heartening to see that. But we have to build on that moment, because it is going to be tough. It’s not just Trump in America, it's Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey. Then there’s the rise of fundamentalisms of all kinds, Christian fundamentalism in the USA to the ISIS type of fundamentalism, so we have got a lot of challenges. But what you have got, which my generation did not have when we were starting out, are these tools of communication. It would have taken a long time to get know there was this big demonstration before the internet. What we have now in terms of possibilities of communication and coordination is completely different from what we had 40 years ago, so that gives me some hope.

We would like to sincerely thank Prof. Elson for very generously offering us her time and giving us the chance to learn from her. Her work has made an indelible mark within the field, and has truly inspired us. As aspiring scholars and practitioners we are immensely grateful for all her contributions.

February 04, 2017

Gender and development conference: a call for papers

The International Development Postgraduate Conference 2017 has put out a call for papers for this summer's conference with the topic 'Changing the Landscapes of Gender Inequality: Theories, Policies and Mobilisations'. The conference will examine why gender matters in development and how change occurs. Some of the questions that will be explored include:

What do NGOs, development agencies and institutions do or not do to ensure gender equality in their change work?

How can theoretical interventions help us rethink approaches to change?

What is the role of the academic community in terms of the role of change?

The key note address will be given by Professor Una Chakravarti, who is a feminist historian, film maker and human rights activist. The conference takes place on 15 June 2017 in the University of Warwick and the deadline for proposals is 3 March 2017. More information can be found here:


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Edouard Leonet
Anni Piiroinen
Sailja Jain
Maria Elena Olsen
Madiha Shekhani
Aistė Jotautytė

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