Sugaronline Editorial - Doing things right By Meghan Sapp

Published: 06/16/2017, 1:35:00 PM

Whether your consumers know it or not is besides the point.

Whether your consumers know it or not is besides the point.


It probably comes as no surprise that when people consume sugar, let alone buy it, they don’t think about how it was produced. After all, 7% of Americans believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, so who cares how sugar is produced or if those who grow it or mill it are children or slaves.

But it does matter, a lot.

Some things are obvious, like slavery. Slavery goes against human rights and human dignity, and is an issue that has plagued the sugar industry for centuries. Thankfully, slavery was banned more than a century ago while organisations working against human trafficking along with commodity-specific sustainability standards like Fairtrade and Bonsucro are helping to end what’s left of it.

So it’s good news when governments and NGOs can work together to save slaves working in the sugar industry and bring the human traffickers to justice, as was the case this week for seven people from Myanmar who were trafficked to Thailand to work as slaves on a sugarcane plantation.

It’s up to industry to ensure that the legacy of slavery in sugarcane production does not continue, so the standards established by Fairtrade and Bonsucro can be a useful tool to help establish company policies that can significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the instances of slavery.

As with any market, if there’s no demand, supply will eventually disappear as well. And that’s what needs to happen with slavery off all kinds in all sectors, including sugarcane.

Child labour, in all agriculture and not just sugarcane, is a tricky subject and not nearly as black and white as slavery. But it too has left a black mark on the industry, and must be dealt with heads on in order to make sure children are not exposed to hazardous work or are kept from school. Yet at the same time, there must be balance struck for families who rely on the labour of their children to get dinner on the table.

Fairtrade, for example, has worked closely with the sugar industry in Belize to make communities and families aware of the risks surrounding child labour in sugarcane and with partners to find culturally appropriate ways to manage the challenges. It wasn’t easy, and required more stick than carrot at the beginning in order to get the industry to pay attention, but in two short years the consortium has managed to make major change at policy as well as field level that is leading to significant improvements in the reduction of inappropriate child labour.

Unfortunately, for far too many companies, sustainability remains a consumer-driven exercise rather than an investment in the future of the industry. So when consumers aren’t calling for fair labour practices, as demonstrated in the recent British Sugar-sponsored survey that shows labour practices in sugarcane production is one of the least important factors in making sugar purchase decisions, it can seem justified to not prioritise the issue as well.

But it’s not justified, not by any sense of the word. It is a cost of doing business, the price of success and a requirement for being human. Even in the US, corporations are treated as human beings now, so it’s time to stand up and make labour issues in sugarcane a priority.

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