Cashews are Delicious, but Come with a Human Cost

As vegan diets become more popular around the world, consumption of cashews is increasing as well.  The nut is an excellent source of protein, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc, as well as monounsaturated fat that helps protect against heart disease. But these laudable benefits come at a steep price.

The cashew industry relies on a brutal manufacturing process to bring its products to market, including the forced labour and the exploitation of children. As documented by the International Labour Organisation and Human Rights Watch, the soaring demand for the nut has driven producers to hire cheap labour, including many children, to keep costs down. And in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch documented forced labour among vulnerable members of society, including inmates in prison on drug charges—for whom the grueling work, for little or no pay, is called “rehabilitation.” If they refuse to work or do not meet their daily quota, they are punished with torture or solitary confinement if they refuse to work or do not reach their daily quota.

With all shelling done by hand, the strenuous work also results in significant health costs. Exposure to the anacardic acid and cardol needed to break the hard shells causes painful injuries. The mostly female workers are not supplied any protective gloves, since the increase expenses and slow down their work.

The jobs in the cashew industry are needed. However, farmers, shellers and company managers must be educated on safe, legal work conditions and solutions such as fair compensation, regular health-and-safety inspections, training on workers’ rights, and enforceable penalties on owners

Introduction

Nut imports are growing exponentially, driven mostly by a trend toward healthier living. The Economist magazine called 2019 the “year of the vegan.” What was once considered just a fad has now become the diet of choice for many Europeans—between 2 and 10 percent of the overall population, according to the Meat Atlas (although the European Vegetarian Union estimates it at about 6 percent). 

Although many nuts are good sources of protein, cashews stand apart from the pack because of their particularly well-balanced nutritional profile (the ratio of saturated to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated is viewed as an “ideal” for optimal health).

According to the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries, the value of annual European imports of cashews increased by an average 17 per cent over the last five years. Most of those nuts come from India and Vietnam—the two largest single growers of cashew nuts, and the main suppliers to the global and European markets. (Because their processing capacity exceeds the volume of their crops, they also import a lot of cashews, primarily from Africa. The raw nuts are then processed and exported as Indian or Vietnamese cashews.) India processes approximately 1.59 million tonnes of cashew nuts every year but produces only approximately half of that. Vietnam processes around 0.9 million tonnes.

Vietnam was introduced to the cashew industry in the 19th century, beginning as trees grown in home gardens. In 1989, cashews were recognised by the government as a market crop. By 2017, cashew farming consumed 300,000 hectares, mostly in the southeastern region of Vietnam. Cashew nuts were exported to 23 countries.

India is an even larger producer, growing 758,410 metric tonnes of raw cashews in 2018. This number is expected to increase 1.8 percent rise a year on a compound basis each year between 2019 and 2024.

However, few of the buyers and consumers of these cashews are aware of how they are grown and produced—and the human cost.

Children working in the cashew industry lose their basic rights to attend school and grow up in a healthy environment. Instead, they are exposed to harmful substances, long working hours and little or no pay.

- Lara Hamidi, an ImpACT researcher

Child labour in Vietnam and India

As demand for cashews grows, so do the working hours required to cultivate and process them. One of the most disturbing realities is the industry’s dependency on exploitation of children. According to the latest International Labour Organisation global report, an estimated 168 million children are put to work in the industry in unsafe conditions. A 2014 survey by the Vietnamese government found an estimated 14,469 children working in the cashew nut industry. Around 56 percent were under the age of 15, below the minimum age of employment in the country. In agriculture overall, a 2017 study by the International Labour Organisation and MOLISA (Ministry of Labour-Invalids and Social Affairs) documented over 1.7 million child labourers, half under the age of 15. (Note that this survey specifically counted children working extreme hours for their age group and/or those working in a job that is, by national legislation, prohibited for minors.

Child labour also is used to reduce production cost in India’s agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors. According to UNESCO, countries in southeast Asia are home to the largest number of out-of-school children, estimated at 31.8 million in 2017. The Bureau of International Labour reported that 1.4 percent of children ages 4 to 15, approximately 3.3 million, were working in 2016. As a result, these children lose their basic rights to attend school and grow up in a healthy environment. Instead, they are exposed to harmful substances, long working hours and little or no pay.

 

Exploitation of drug detainees

Human Rights Watch released a shocking report in 2011 documenting forced labour. Many of Vietnam's cashews are farmed and processed by imprisoned drug addicts who are forced to work as part of their “rehabilitation” programme. These detainees are forced to work for little or no pay and endure physical abuse and extreme working hours. They must work six days a week, 6 to 8 hours a day, sewing garments and manufacturing various items, as well as processing cashews.

Such cashew-processing centres are advertised as rehabilitation programmes that provide drug treatment and “therapy.” According to the statements of former detainees, they must fulfill a daily quota of cashews to gather and peel; if they refuse, they are physically harmed or isolated. Often, these quotas are 20-30 kilos of cashews a day.

Poor health conditions

Cashews are shelled by hand, a process that can cause serious damage to workers’ hands and fingers. During the deshelling process, the nuts produce a caustic liquid (cardol and anacardic acid) that burns the skin. Although bandages or rubber gloves help protect the hands and alkaline pot ash can counteract the acid, in most instances, these supplies are not available or workers have to pay for them and cannot afford it. Workers’ skin turns black and burnt.

Their eyesight also deteriorates, both as a result of the long hours and irritation from the burning. One former detainee was interviewed by Human Rights Watch, saying, “I would sometimes inhale the dust from the shells, and that made me cough”. Another detainee told HRW that “if the fluid from the hard, outer husk got on your hands, it left a burn”. A former detainee told HRW that boys ages 16-17 received the same treatment as adults in the centre. All age groups are housed together, and thus minors do not receive the special attention they need.

Similar issues have been reported in India, where there are reports of cashew workers chopping off fingers because they are so damaged by the acids in the cashew shells.

Conclusions and recommendations

Human Rights Watch has called for companies that source their cashews from Vietnam or India to determine whether their suppliers adhere to humane business practices. As long as demand for the nut continues to increase, human exploitation will continue.

To improve the safety of workers in the cashew nut industry, serious preventive measures must be taken. Some supermarkets, such as Tesco and Sainsbury in the UK, have signed on to an ethical trading initiative, in which participants pledge to ensure safe, hygenic work conditions, ban child labour and pay a living wage. However, many other retailers and wholesalers have yet to follow suit.
 
Suggestions to improve poor working conditions include:
  • Frequent factory inspections by health and safety teams.
  • Training of farmers and factory owners on safety regulations and labour laws, as well as education of workers on labour rights.
  • Collaboration with provincial governments in major farming areas, providing training on safe agricultural practices, compliance with labour and quality standards, and safe handling of chemicals.
  • Coaching and monitoring of subcontractors on quality control and supply management.
  • Improved communication between managers and employees in cashew-processing centres, perhaps via labour unions.
  • Government enforcement of harsh penalties for documented child labour and violation of safety regulations.
  • Termination of drug “rehabilitation” programmes that use detainees for forced labour.
  • Compensation of detainees who have been forced to work, along with provision of adequate rehabilitation and medical care.

 

 

Bibliography

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