Modern Day Slavery in the Food Supply Chain

By Dr. Kim Salmons

In March 2015, the Modern Slavery Act received Royal Ascent. The Act was designed to ensure that businesses over a certain size must publish an annual report statement on the slavery and human trafficking in their sector. In addition they are compelled to state that they have taken steps to ensure that this form of exploitation is not taking place in their supply chains. This, however, is not happening. The everyday foods that we eat and enjoy are tainted by slavery and human trafficking.

Prawns, as one example, come tainted with the exploitation of Thai fishermen who can spend years on prawn trawlers, abducted as boys and held captive under fear of death or torture. In 2014, an investigation carried out by the Guardian newspaper detailed the horrific conditions in which these workers exist. In one report, the Guardian recommended that consumers should only buy prawns that had been sourced from the North Atlantic or the Irish Sea. But then, in November 2015, the Guardian exposed exploitation of migrant workers in the Irish fishing industry in which sleep deprivation, unsanitary living conditions and enforced long hours were endemic.  

Even the humble tomato has roots in the slave trade: Italy is the third largest producer of tomatoes but the majority of Italy’s tomato pickers are migrant workers from Ghana. They are paid poverty wages and they live in squalor. The tomatoes the migrant workers harvest are processed in Italy and sold to the UK. They end up in pasta sauces, purees and other food products.

Where Ghanaians once grew and harvested their own tomatoes, the increase in production costs and pressure from large supermarkets to cut prices, has resulted in them being priced out of the market. Now Ghanaian tomato farmers abandon their land and travel to Italy to pick tomatoes instead of farming their own. To add a terrible irony to the situation, the Ghanaian people no longer cook and eat the tomatoes that were once a staple of their diet; instead they buy tins of chopped, processed tomatoes which are imported from China and Italy.

Some believe that human trafficking and slavery is something that happens in other countries. But the UK is as guilty of exploitation in the food supply chain as any other nation.

Immigrants arriving in the East of England and the East Midlands hoping to improve their lives, are employed by poultry processing factories – an industry that turns over £600 million a year. In 2014, a Report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission exposed the cruel treatment that the immigrant workers suffered. Around one in six migrant agency workers, many Polish, mentioned having been forced to work under threat of losing their job. They were made to do overtime when they didn’t want to, either because they were ill or pregnant. Some workers were prevented from leaving the premises in order for them to do overtime. Conversely, workers were told they weren’t wanted at short notice. If one worker refused to do overtime, then a whole group were threatened with the sack.

And what of one of the world’s favourite foods, chocolate? More than 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown and harvested in West African countries; mainly Ghana and the Ivory Coast and many of the workers on the 600,000 farms that produce cocoa for the major chocolate companies, are children.

Farmers can earn as little as $2 a day and are forced into using cheap or slave labour. Some of the children are abducted by traffickers from Burkina Faso and Mali and most never see their families again. The children pack the cocoa pods into sacks that weigh more than 100Ibs when full and have to drag them through the forest:

Finally, coffee: 1.6 billion cups of the stimulant are drunk every day and with the retail value of coffee standing at $50 billion a year, coffee as a commodity comes second only to oil. Five companies control half the global retail market: Kraft, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble, Sara Lee and Tchibo and 80% of the coffee supplied through these global companies comes from Asia, South America and Sub Saharan Africa.

Despite its status as a hugely profitable commodity, coffee production relies on cheap labour and most coffee farmers have small holdings, receiving just 7-10% of the retail value of the coffee sold in supermarkets. On occasion the cost of producing the coffee exceeds what the farmers earn and in order to keep production costs down, children are used as cheap labour. In Kenya, 30% of coffee pickers are under the age of 15. For the full story download the on-line film, Black Gold by Nick and Marc Francis).


 Dr. Kim Salmons works at St. Mary's University, Twickenham, and has her PhD in Modern English Literature. This blog is part of a presentation which she delivered at the FEAST event ('Modern Day Slavery in the Food Supply Chain', on February 8th, 2015), in conjunction with a series of events at the Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery. Dr. Salmons has also previously published articles on vegetarianism, anarchy and cannibalism.