Many countries, including the United States, have a history of using slave labor in agriculture. Tragically, some regions of the world remain dependent on exploitive labor practices to this day. Slave labor exists in several forms such as “forced labor,” in which workers are required to labor against their will, and “debt bondage” in which workers are indebted to their employer before the work even begins. Often times, workers in conditions of forced labor and debt bondage also experience physical abuse or threats of violence at the hands of employers.
In the United States, we have long imported the products of slavery and continue to do so through the international food market. Slave labor has become thoroughly entrenched in the production of certain commodity crops grown in Latin America. While certain regions are well known for using slave labor, no one really knows how widespread these conditions have become globally.
Items such as “beef” from Brazil and sugar from Latin America are becoming increasingly competitive on the global market.[1,2] However, the reality is that competitive pricing is often the result of exploitive labor practices.
Conditions of slavery are most common in regions that are poor and often dependent on just a few crops to sustain their economy. Farm owners rely on labor contractors to supply cheap labor so they can remain competitive in the global marketplace. When the contractors choose to exploit workers for their own monetary gain, the farm owner can simply claim they had no knowledge of the conditions.
Workers have reported being beaten by their supervisors, housed in unsanitary shacks, sexually assaulted, chained to prevent them from escaping and have even received death threats, all while receiving little or no pay.[3,4]
Employers view these modern-day slaves as temporary and disposable labor.
“Beef” production in Brazil
As the world’s number one exporter of “beef,” Brazilian ranchers have found an effective way to undercut their competition– by using slave labor.
In order to provide prime grazing land for cows, some of the most ecologically diverse forests in the world must be cleared. The forests are extremely dense with vegetation and would be very costly to clear using traditional labor. Instead, many farm owners turn to labor contractors who can provide slave labor. Consequently, the Brazilian “beef” that is sold and served in the U.S. may be directly connected to the use of slave labor.
Labor contractors actively recruit workers by traveling to neighboring communities and promising steady work and high wages. They primarily target the poor as well as young people looking to help support their families. The workers are told very little about the nature of the work, but they go because they have few alternatives.
Referred to as “debt bondage,” the workers become unknowingly indebted to the labor contractor before the work even begins. Expenses associated with travel, food and housing are deducted from their wages. At the end of employment, most workers receive very little or no money at all.
One worker, Gilvado Mendes Soares, told the story of a co-worker who had been beaten and sent away with no pay after he repeatedly asked to be paid for the work he had done.
Most grazing sites are in very remote areas, sometimes days from the nearest town. The workers feel isolated and are unlikely to attempt escape due to the threat of physical violence or death. Some farms even employ armed guards to watch the workers as they labor.
Egito dos Santos experienced these abusive conditions first-hand while clearing grazing land in Brazil. Egito’s foreman threatened to kill any worker who attempted to escape.
In August of 2010, Brazil’s High Labor Court announced that a company running ranches in Brazil was being fined close to $3 million for keeping 180 workers in slavery on two different properties and making them work up to 24 hours a day. There were even adolescents and a 14-year-old among those workers.  The same company had been fined five separate times in the past for similar labor violations.
Sugar Production in Latin America
The sugar industry of Latin American has a long history of using slave labor. Today, several countries in the region rely almost exclusively on these exploitive labor practices in order to keep their sugar prices competitive. Consequently, thousands of people work in the sugar cane fields for little or no pay under the constant threat of physical violence.
The United States imports about 20% of its sugar, and Brazil is one of the top exporters of sugar to the United States. In much the same way that workers are exploited in the production of Brazilian “beef,” the production of sugar is also linked to slave labor. Workers are recruited to harvest the sugar cane and to clear vegetation for new plantations. During their time of employment, the workers are infrequently paid small sums of money and told they will receive the rest at the end of the contract. When that time comes, the workers find that many expenses were unknowingly deducted from their wages.
The Dominican Republic is one of the largest sugar producers in the world, sending over two-thirds of their annual export to the United States. Slavery is extremely prevalent in the nation’s sugar industry, with the vast majority of workers coming from neighboring Haiti.[ 11,12]
In preparation for the harvest season, government recruiters are responsible for finding Haitian workers and bringing them to the sugar cane fields. They are not hard to find, as many Haitians are desperate for any kind of work. It is also common for some workers to be abducted and taken to the fields against their will.
Once they cross the border into the Dominican Republic, the workers are stripped of their clothes and their identification is confiscated. For the next several months, they will spend up to 14 hours in the sun each day cutting the dense canes with a machete. Cuts, gashes and severed fingers are common injuries for the workers, who usually receive no medical attention for their injuries.
At night, the workers sleep on metal cots in crowded sheds with no water and no toilet. Many of the barracks are patrolled by armed guards and acts of sexual violence against female workers are not uncommon.
Despite increasing pressure from the international community, conditions of slavery remain prevalent in the production of large-scale food exports such as sugar and “beef.” In part, this is due to the lack of oversight and regulation by local governments. They know exploitive conditions exist, but they don’t want to compromise their place in the world market.
Food Empowerment Project is determined that the public be informed of these types of abuses in the food industry so we can work to prevent them. Situations like this do not have an easy solution, but Food Empowerment Project believes it is important for everyone to be aware of the fact that the U.S. imports products of slavery, so when opportunities arise we can be prepared to help stop it. Not only do we encourage a vegan lifestyle, but we also encourage individuals to be knowledgeable about where products come from in order to be able to make mindful and compassionate purchases.
 “International Markets and Trade: Brazil.” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA ERS). 2012. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/international-markets-trade/countries-regions/brazil/trade.aspx#.VCyAvufZV3W (9/29/14)
 “Sugar Imports Under Tariff-Rate Quotas.” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA ERS). 2012. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/sugar-sweeteners/trade.aspx#.VCyBfefZV3W (9/29/14)
 Kevin G. Hall. “Modern-Day Slavery.” Knight Ridder News Service & The Miami Herald. 2004. http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/brazil/slavery.htm (8/16/10)
 Clover, C. and Wigan, M. “Cheap Brazilian Beef Imports Are Subsidised By Slave Labour.” Telegraph. 2006. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1506986/Cheap-Brazilian-beef-imports-are-subsidised-by-slave-labour.html (8/16/10)
 Jerry Bieszk. “Brazil Beef Headed for U.S. if Trade Deal Resolved.” Reuters. 2010. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN1414229520100414 (8.20.10)
 “Forced Labour in Brazil: 120 Years After the Abolition of Slavery, the Fight Goes On.” International Labour Organization. 2008 http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/features/WCMS_092663/lang–en/index.htm (2/9/13)
 ” Cattle Company Fined for Slavery.” AFP. 2010 http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/08/19/2987128.htm
 Amanda Kloer. “Brazillian Company Fined $2.8 Million for Using Slave Labor.” CNN World. 2010. Retrieved 3/5/2013 from http://articles.cnn.com/2010-08-18/world/brazil.slave.labor.fine_1_slave-labor-government-inhuman-conditions?_s=PM:WORLD
 L. E. Baucum and R. W. Rice. ” Overview of Florida Sugarcane.” University of Florida IFAS Extension. 2009 http://ufdc.ufl.edu/IR00003414/00001 (9/29/14)
 Arthur Bice. “Government Fights Slave Labor in Brazil.” CNN International. 2009. http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/01/09/brazil.slavery/index.html (8/22/10)