Food and beverage companies face the risk of forced labor in countries where they obtain sugarcane but most fall short in efforts to tackle the problem that threatens millions of workers, according to a study released on Tuesday. Most of 10 companies studied offered only limited details of how they assess and monitor risks of forced labor in specific countries, and most of grievance procedures for workers are weak, said KnowTheChain (KTC), a partnership founded by U.S.-based Humanity United. Sugarcane, a major agricultural commodity, can be found in a list of household foods and beverages from cereals to sauces and is often harvested by rural migrant workers with machetes who work long hours for low wages in hazardous conditions. KTC said there is often little law enforcement and those workers are vulnerable to becoming victims of forced labor, especially by recruiters who deceive them about work and wages in other regions or countries.
"It is possible that the sugar in the cereal you ate for breakfast or the soda you drank at lunch was produced with forced labor," said Kilian Moote, KnowTheChain project director, in a statement. Agricultural workers, particularly migrants, are at most risk of abuse."
Sugarcane produced by forced labor has been found in Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Myanmar and Pakistan, according to a list published in 2016 by the U.S. government. Verite, a KTC partner, also found reports of debt bondage of sugarcane workers in India and found sugarcane workers in Guatemala at a high risk of trafficking. Globally, about 21 million people are victims of forced labor, made to work for free after falling into debt or forced to work due to deception, coercion or threat of violence, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).