Sustainability and Human Trafficking

When I started working on human trafficking issues about 2 years ago, I viewed it as something that was not directly related to sustainability and environmental issues. Over the course of the last 2 years, as I’ve learned more about the issues surrounding slavery and labor abuses, I started connecting the dots between sustainability, how and what consumers demand from suppliers, and these very serious and troubling human rights issues.

My career revolves around retail – specifically food retail and agriculture. When I talk to people about human trafficking and labor risks associated with food supply chains, I usually get a confused look and the follow up question: “what?”

It’s probably safe to say when most people think about labor risks, human trafficking and/or slavery in a supply chain context, they think about the apparel and electronics industries. These are two areas that have had highly publicized controversy surrounding their labor practices. But if you look beyond those two industries, you’ll easily see that human rights violations can exist in any supply chain, in any industry. There are an estimated 20-30 million people enslaved or trafficked around the world today.



Thailand has recently had it’s status demoted to the highest risk level – ‘Tier 3’ – in the ‘2014 Trafficking in Persons Report‘, issued annually by the U.S. Department of State. This demotion was partially due to the fact that Thailand fishing boats – which happen to supply a large portion of the fish meal used to feed prawns, which in turn supply the U.S. shrimp and fish market – commonly use forced labor. The Thai fishing industry is largely unregulated, and migrant workers – those who come from other countries to work – may not even receive written contracts or be paid at all, in addition to facing physical abuse with no way to leave their situation.

According to the report:

Thai Fishing Boat

Thai Fishing Boat

“Thai men are subjected to forced labor on Thai fishing boats that travel throughout Southeast Asia and beyond; some men remain at sea for up to several years, are paid very little, are expected to work 18 to 20 hours per day for seven days a week, or are threatened and physically beaten. A 2013 report found that approximately 17 percent of surveyed fishermen, who primarily worked on short haul vessels spending less than one month at sea, experienced forced labor conditions, often due to threats of financial penalty including not being fully remunerated for work already performed”

Shrimp and other seafood produced in Thailand ends up at your local grocer – in the form of whole shrimp and as part of pre-made meals or processed food items. This isn’t to say every company operating in Thailand is violating labor laws or abusing people, however it is very difficult to trace products all the way back to their source, particularly highly processed foods.

More info and a very interesting educational video on the Thai fishing industry: here


West Africa

Cocoa Plantation

Cocoa Plantation

More than 70% of the world’s supply of chocolate comes from two countries on the southern shore of West Africa: Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. There, whole communities are dedicated to growing cacao, which is lucrative for governments and international traders, but brings below-poverty wages (less than $2 per day) for the farmers who produce it. Low wages mean farmers cannot hire the labor needed to harvest the crops, and this perpetuates child trafficking and labor. These children are exposed to harsh chemicals, long working hours, and the denial of education. Smallholders, or family farms, might be stuck between sending their children to school, and desperately needing them to help on the plantation to make ends meet. With low educational access and attendance, families in the cocoa sector are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty. Cocoa producers have little bargaining power against the few large multinational companies that control the supply chain and ultimately determine the livelihoods of farming families.

Some children end up on the cocoa farms because they need work to help their families, and traffickers tell them that the job pays well. Other children are sold to traffickers or farm owners by their own relatives, who are unaware of the dangerous work environment and the lack of any provisions for an education. Traffickers may also resort to abducting young children from villages in neighboring African countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali, two of the poorest countries in the world. Once they have been taken to the cocoa farms, the children may not see their families for years, if ever.

There is a lot of work being done to address child labor in West Africa, some of that work can be credited to the producers of the chocolate products we buy here in the U.S. and internationally. Again, not all companies operating in this region should be assumed to be participating in child labor – but it’s up to the consumer to demand transparency in the products they purchase, as traceability is difficult.

More info on cocoa harvesting and child labor (and references to the above) can be found on the International Labor Rights Forum and The Food Empowerment Project


United States

Human trafficking is not just an overseas problem. In the United States, the agriculture industry uses seasonal and migrant workers, at times undocumented, to harvest food and other agricultural products. Men and women, children, and even entire families are used to harvest crops, raise livestock, work in nurseries and pack food and ornamental plants. According to the Polaris project, victims of this form of trafficking include U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, undocumented immigrants, and foreign nationals with temporary H-2A work visas.  

Farm Workers

Farm Workers

Some examples of forced labor in the agriculture industry in the U.S. include people who can be forced to work by having their documentation withheld, being threatened with deportation by the employer, forcing contracts be signed in a language the employee does not understand and incurring recruitment fees that the employee becomes indebted to, and may never be allowed to pay off.

These are just a few examples of labor abuses around the world. Again, it’s up to the consumer to put pressure on their retailers and food suppliers to verify their sources, and provide transparency and fair labor conditions.



So, what does this have to do with sustainability and the environment? This NPR article does a good job explaining it, but in a  nutshell: poor environmental management practices and apathetic attitudes concerning where and how our food is produced, all while demanding food be cheap and available year-round, puts enormous strain on the resources we rely on to produce such food.

Trash FishOcean resources, like the fish the Thai fishermen catch, are declining due to over-fishing. This ultimately means that these people, possibly people working against their will, have to search longer and farther for the same levels of catch they have historically caught. This also means that competing companies will be targeting the same shrinking resources, potentially leading to conflict.

Soil quality and climate change impact how and where crops are grown, which could impact the cocoa plantation workers in West Africa – leaving them with no work, little work, or having to switch crops to something more profitable, like rubber plantations. This, in turn, puts strain on supply, increases prices, and of course, impacts families and children who depend on these plantations and resources for their livelihoods. It would be understandable that people in a desperate situation like this would have little, if any, concern for their environmental impacts (putting themselves in another destructive cycle).

ProduceThe same holds true for the U.S. agriculture system. In California, there is a serious drought underway. California also happens to produce almost half of US grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. There is already political involvement in distributing water to agriculture, which is at odds with environmental concerns regarding biodiversity,endangered species protection and long term health of water supplies. When people have to work longer and harder for the same output, employers are going to look for labor that is cheap and easy. This, unfortunately, will likely mean an increase in human trafficking, slavery, and child labor.

How we eat and what we eat is important to the long term sustainability of a nutritious and accessible food supply chain. The often overlooked pieces to a sustainable food system are traceability and transparency. Where did the food come from, and where did it’s ingredients come from? How was this food produced, harvested, transported and packaged? Were those people paid fairly? Were they able to go home at the end of the day and see their family? Did they have access to their own bank account and passport? Were they given the opportunity to get an education?

While these are probably not questions the average person asks when in a grocery store and picking up dinner, they are questions that need to be asked more often of our food suppliers and retailers. Corporations will respond to what their consumers demand – and if we demand better, fair, more transparent systems – they will deliver.


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