Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Worker Exploitation in Agriculture – the cost of Cheap Food

Most people are unaware that human slavery and exploitation are happening around the world – including places like the US and Europe.  The food that you purchase in supermarkets may have been produced by unpaid workers or modern-day slaves. 

Slavery is endemic in many industries – in particular the chocolate and fishing industries – and worker exploitation such as poor pay and hazardous, life-threatening working conditions is part and parcel of the meat industry.  Even the fruit and vegetables you buy may have been harvested by poor migrants living in squalid conditions who live under the constant threat of violence or murder.  There is a price to be paid for keeping the price of food low, and this price is often paid by exploited workers.


Slave labour is used by farmers in order to keep their prices low.  Many countries around the world exploit poor immigrants who are not paid for their work.  They may be recruited by unscrupulous labour contractors promising them a good job and a decent wage, but when they arrive at their destination they are forced to work long hours in harsh conditions without pay, and their lives are threatened if they try to escape.

Slave labour may also take the form of debt bondage where the workers are already indebted to the employer before the work begins.  The labour contractor charges a recruitment fee which the worker must pay back.  The worker is also forced to pay for lodgings, food and other upkeep expenses, so when all this is deducted they end up with nothing.

Workers have reported being beaten by their supervisors, housed in unsanitary shacks, sexually assaulted, had their passports withheld, threatened with deportation, chained to prevent them from escaping and receiving death threats.

In some countries the labour laws are poorly written and minimally enforced, enabling employers to exploit workers with little or no threat of penalty.

Slavery in the Chocolate Industry

Chocolate – a product of the cacao bean – is grown primarily in Western Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  The cocoa they grow and harvest is sold to chocolate companies, including the largest in the world such as Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestlé. 

In recent years journalists have highlighted the widespread use of child labour and slavery on cocoa farms in Western Africa.  The industry is highly secretive and governments have been implicated in the murder and detention of journalists who have carried out investigations into the industry.

Some children are sold to traffickers or farm owners by their own relatives who are unaware of the dangerous work they will have to do. Traffickers often abduct young children – some as young as 5.  Once they have been taken to the cocoa farms, the children may not see their families for years.

Some of the children use chainsaws to clear the forests, or they have to climb the cocoa trees to cut bean pods using a machete.  Once they cut the bean pods from the trees, the children pack the pods into sacks weighing more than 100 pounds and drag them through the forest.

Hershey’s, the largest chocolate manufacturer in the US, has not thoroughly addressed accusations of child labour in its supply chain and refuses to release any information about where it sources its cocoa.  This lack of transparency is characteristic of the chocolate industry, which has the resources to address and eliminate child labour but consistently fails to do so.

Sugar production in South America

The sugar industry in Latin American has a long history of using slave labour.  Several countries in the region rely almost exclusively on slave labour and exploitative labour practises in order to keep sugar prices low.

The Dominican Republic is one of the largest sugar producers in the world and slavery is extremely prevalent.  The vast majority of workers come from neighbouring Haiti – many of them desperate for work.  It is not uncommon for some workers to be abducted and taken to the fields against their will.

Governments know that these exploitative practises exist, but they don’t want to compromise their place in the world market.

Slaughterhouse Workers in the US

U.S. slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities employ over 500,000 workers.  Most are African American or Latin American people from low-income communities.  Approximately 38% are non-US citizens.

Workers are discouraged from reporting safety concerns, injuries, or other serious issues for fear that they may be let go.  Employers make it clear that other people are always available to replace them.  As a result, workers are conditioned to accept a hazardous and demeaning work environment if they want to remain employed.

Slaughterhouse work is extremely dangerous, and workers have to constantly keep up with the ‘line speed’ which means that a certain number of animals must be killed and ‘processed’ every minute.  They are pushed so hard they often defecate in their pants to avoid slowing down.

Types of injuries include:

  • Amputations
  • Fractured fingers
  • Loss of an eye
  • Second-degree burns
  • Head trauma
  • Chronic pains in limbs, shoulders and back
  • Repetitive stress injuries

There are at least 17 ‘severe’ incidents a month in US meat plants.  Amputations happen on average twice a week.

A Texas Observer article reported that slaughterhouse workers face a variety of negative emotional and psychological consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Like all agricultural workers, slaughterhouse and meat-processing workers struggle to live above the poverty line and provide a decent quality of life for their family.   

Within such a corrupt, devaluing system, human and nonhuman animals alike are unavoidably treated like garbage. 


Workers in Irish slaughterhouses recently described life as a meat plant worker as ‘a low-wage, bloody business’.  In a Guardian article one Romanian slaughterhouse worker said: “It’s horrible killing cows, when you see how they do it.  They kill it – shoot it, cut the neck, cut the legs. I don’t like it.  The cow is slow, an emotional thing.  And you see the blood, and they go from being alive to being in pieces.  That’s the way.  When you see the conditions – it’s a dirty and nasty place, nobody is happy.”

Temperatures in the factories can hover at 4°C, with industrial ceiling fans that circulate cool air to keep the meat free of microbes. The job is repetitive and tough.  Workers take painkillers to get through their shifts.

During the COVID-19 pandemic there have been outbreaks in 12 meat processing plants in the Republic of Ireland and 571 workers have tested positive.  They are given no personal protection equipment and they have to work side by side with no social distancing.

Factory Farm Workers

Factory farms are notoriously toxic environments and workers are constantly exposed to airborne toxins, injuries, and zoonotic infections.  Workers routinely inhale hazardous levels of particulate matter as well as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases.

Nearly 70% of all workers in pig confinement operations experience one or more symptoms of respiratory illness. Large volumes of liquid manure are stored below grated floors or outside the sheds in manure lagoons.  Many workers who have entered these manure lagoons to perform maintenance tasks have been asphyxiated by the release of hydrogen sulfide gas.

Workers have no choice but to continue to work in these conditions in order to support their families. 

Field and Crop Workers

Field work and harvesting are physically demanding jobs, involving pruning, picking or packaging crops for hours on end.  An average workday could be up to 14 hours.  These types of jobs are not attractive to most people and tend to attract poor migrants.  Wages are low and some contractors operate under the table by paying cash wages less than the minimum wage, which is illegal.


The vast majority of field workers in the US are people of colour living in low income areas. Approximately 75% of US field workers were born in Mexico, and undocumented workers represent a very high percentage of the overall workforce.

In many areas, periods of peak harvest coincide with extreme summer temperatures and workers face prolonged exposure to heat, often working in temperatures exceeding 90 or 100 degrees.  Since 2005, at least 11 farm workers have died as a result of heat exposure.

Each year 10,000-20,000 U.S. agricultural workers are diagnosed with pesticide poisoning.  Long-term exposure to agricultural chemicals is associated with cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer disease as well as infertility and reproductive complications.

In many instances, workers are afraid to report health and safety violations due to the threat of losing their jobs or for fear of deportation.


Spain’s Almeria region is an agricultural hotspot with vast numbers of greenhouses.  Farmers here consistently use undocumented migrants from Morocco and West Africa who are paid below the minimum wage and are housed in squalid conditions.  One worker says: “We are exposed to risks such as pesticides. We breathe the products that are used to kill the bugs in the greenhouse. We have no one to tell us: ‘This is dangerous for you.’  People are afraid, but they’re more afraid of the bosses firing them.  People die inside the greenhouse because they have no protection.  In the end, the worker is sacrificed so that a well-packaged product reaches the supermarkets.”


Harvesting of over 25% of the food produced in Italy is done by more than 370,000 seasonal workers from North Africa and Eastern Europe.  Around 200,000 of them are undocumented.

Workers are paid according to the amount of vegetables they collect rather than the time spent at work, or they are paid 12 euros for 8 hours of work under the supervision of the so-called ‘Caporali’ who are modern slave masters.  More than 1,500 agricultural workers have died as a result of their work over the past six years, while others have been killed by the Caporali.

There are an estimated 50-70 shantytowns in Italy housing 100,000 migrant workers without water or proper standards of hygiene, sanitation or health services.

The Fishing Industry

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for an astounding one third of the world’s seafood catch. 

Because fish stocks have been depleted, today’s marine fisheries require as much as five times the effort of the 1950s in order to catch the same quantity of fish.  A lot of the hard work is done by exploited, vulnerable workers and undocumented migrants, and slavery is prevalent within some seafood supply chains.  Verité, an NGO that deals exclusively with labour violations in supply chains, has asserted that human trafficking exists in almost all seafood supply chains.

There have been media reports of modern slavery and labour abuses aboard American, Canadian, British, Irish, Chinese, and Taiwanese vessels in recent years.

It is difficult to regulate fishing activity in international waters, and this results in a lack of transparency in the supply chain and a demand for cheap seafood. 

Southeast Asia and Thailand

In recent years a series of investigations exposed the horrific treatment of labourers aboard commercial fishing vessels and at aquaculture sites and seafood processing plants in Southeast Asia.

The workers were exposed to dangerous workplace practices, starvation diets, thirst, physical and verbal abuse and lack of medical care.  Many victims—some as young as 15 years old—described routine beatings and physical confinement with chains and manacles.  Others told stories of brutal maiming and even execution inflicted as punishment for attempted mutiny or escape.


A year-long investigation by The Guardian uncovered undocumented Ghanaian, Filipino, Egyptian and Indian fishermen manning boats in ports from Cork to Galway.  The workers described a catalogue of abuses, including being confined to vessels unless given permission by their skippers to go on land, being paid less than half the Irish minimum wage, extreme sleep deprivation, having to work for days or nights on end with only a few hours’ sleep, and with no proper rest days.

Some migrant workers claim to have been deceived and appear to have been trafficked on to trawlers for labour exploitation, an abuse that would be a form of modern slavery.

Exploitation of foreign labour is an open secret in the Irish seafood sector.  Vulnerable workers are often hard to help because they fear reprisals and deportation.

The Solution

The obvious solution is to Go Vegan.  This will mean we are no longer consuming products such as meat, dairy, eggs and fish, which have potentially been produced by slavery or exploitation. 

But going vegan does not address all these problems.  When we buy chocolate or cocoa products it is important to ensure that they have a Fair Trade label and are not the products of slavery.  Even with a Fair Trade label there is no guarantee that exploitation was not involved.  Most vegan chocolate companies are aware of the issue and usually source their cocoa ethically. 

No matter what products we buy, there is always the possibility that there was corruption somewhere in the supply chain, so it is important that we (at the very least) only choose labels and brands that are ethical.

When buying fresh produce where there is doubt over the ethical sourcing of the products then it is wise to purchase from farmers markets or to join a ‘veg box’ scheme where you can vouch for the people who grow your food.

For more information, please check out the links below.



Food is Power: Human Labour and Slavery


Modern Slavery and the Race to Fish – Tickler et al (2018)

Is there modern slavery behind your seafood? – Oceana

Cambodian Fisheries Worker urges Canada to do more to combat Slave Labour

Trafficked Migrant Workers Abused in Irish Fishing Industry – The Guardian

The Exploitation of Migrant Workers in the Irish Fishing Industry – MRCI

Meat Industry

We’re Modern Slaves: How Meat Plant Workers became the new Frontline in COVID-19 War – The Guardian

Two Amputations a Week: The Cost of Working in a US Meat Plant – The Guardian

Meat Factories in the North East may face illegal Employment Charges – Irish Times

Life inside Ireland’s Meat Plants – The Guardian

PTSD in the Slaughterhouse – Texas Observer

COVID-19 isn’t the only sickness spreading though meat plants – Sentient Media

Field Workers

Italy’s Coronavirus Farmworker Shortage fuels debate on Illegal Migration

Stop the Exploitation of migrant agricultural workers across Italy

EU’s Agri-Food Sector could run out of the Migrant Workers it relies on – The Examiner

Consumers are not aware we are slaves inside the greenhouse – Al Jazeera


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