Commodity Atlas


Countries Where Sugar is Reportedly Produced with Forced Labor and/or Child Labor

Sugar Commodity Risk Map

Sugar is reportedly produced with forced labor (FL) and/or child labor (CL) in the following countries:

  • Belize (CL)
  • Bolivia (FL, CL)
  • Brazil (CL)
  • Burma (FL, CL)
  • Cambodia (CL)
  • Colombia (CL)
  • Dominican Republic (FL, CL)
  • El Salvador (CL)
  • Guatemala (CL)
  • India (CL)
  • Kenya (CL)
  • Mexico (CL)
  • Pakistan (FL)
  • Panama (CL)
  • Paraguay (CL)
  • The Philippines (CL)
  • Thailand (CL)
  • Uganda (CL)
  • Vietnam (CL)

Top ten countries that produce sugar worldwide (FAOSTAT 2016):

  • Brazil
  • India
  • China
  • Thailand
  • Pakistan
  • Mexico
  • Colombia
  • Australia
  • Guatemala
  • United States

Top ten countries that export sugar worldwide (UN Comtrade 2017):[1]

  • Brazil
  • Thailand
  • France
  • United Arab Emirates
  • India
  • Guatemala
  • Burma
  • Germany
  • Mexico
  • Cuba

[1] International Trade Center (ITC Calculations based on UNCOMTRADE Statistics).

Top ten countries that import sugar worldwide (UN Comtrade 2017):[2]

  • Indonesia
  • United States
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Bangladesh
  • China
  • India
  • Algeria
  • Malaysia
  • Italy
  • Republic of Korea

[2] International Trade Center (ITC Calculations based on UNCOMTRADE Statistics).

Where is sugar reportedly produced with trafficking and/or child labor?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, sugarcane is produced with forced labor in Pakistan; with forced labor and child labor in Bolivia, Burma, and the Dominican Republic; and with child labor in Belize, Brazil, Cambodia, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, the Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, and Vietnam.[1b] Sugar beets are reportedly produced with child labor in Turkey.[2b]

Colombia and the Philippines are listed as Tier 1 countries by the U.S. Department of State 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report. The report lists Brazil, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, India, Kenya, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda and Vietnam as Tier 2 countries. Guatemala is listed as a Tier 2 Watch List country. Bolivia, Belize and Burma are listed as Tier 3 countries.[3]

Sugar production and supply chain:

The Sugarcane Refining Process.

The labor-intensive nature of sugarcane production provides employment and livelihoods for many workers. Over 25 percent of the rural workforce in Brazil and 75 percent of the rural workforce in Mauritius work in the sector.[30] Production takes place on both large commercial estates as well as on smallholder farms, usually under outgrower or contract arrangements, which can provide farmers with inputs, technology, access to markets and the potential for reduced financial risk.[31] However, such arrangements have also been criticized because of the unequal power relationships between the outgrower and purchasing company, particularly if they lead to debt cycles when farmers have to borrow money to invest in their production and that investment does not pay off in earnings from sales to the company.[32] Research further indicates that the expansion of outgrower schemes can result in land grabs on the part of the purchasing company.[33]

Sugarcane can be harvested by hand or by machine; hand harvesting with machetes is typically preferred in order to avoid damaging the crop and because it requires less capital and technological investment. Machine harvesting, while potentially more cost-efficient in the long term, is capital intensive in the short-term. Thus, machine harvesting is typically employed on larger-scale estates with access to capital, while hand harvesting with machetes is more common on smallholder farms and plantations.

After the harvest, sugarcane must be quickly transported for processing because it deteriorates quickly. At sugar mills, processing creates raw sugar, which is generally refined into consumer sugar.[34] Other products derived from sugarcane include bagasse (a byproduct from sugar used for electricity), molasses (formed by repeated crystallization of sugar), animal feed, and ethanol/biofuels.[35]

Globally, approximately 173 million tons of sugar are produced annually, and production is projected to reach almost 207 million tons by 2021-22.[36]

Extracting sugar cane juice with old traditional machine

How do trafficking and/or child labor in sugar production affect me?

Sugarcane is used around the world in a wide variety of confectionery products, as a culinary sweetener, and as an ingredient in soft drinks and alcoholic beverages. Sugar may also be used in ethanol or as an ingredient in industrial products such as cement or glue.[37]

Examples of what governments, corporations, and others are doing:

Bonsucro is a multi-stakeholder group which seeks to improve social and environmental standards in sugar production. The required standards for membership include prohibition of forced and child labor. Bonsucro certifies mills, rather than farms, although as part of certification, supplying farms are required to meet sustainability standards.[38]

In Brazil, the government’s Bolsa Familia program has been credited with reducing child labor and increasing school enrollment.[39] In 2018, the Coca-Cola company announced a private-public partnership with the U.S. Department of State that will use blockchain technology to address forced labor issues in the company’s sugar supply chains, especially those in the Asia-Pacific region.[40]

AIM Progress, a consumer goods forum dedicated to promoting responsible sourcing and sustainable supply chains, has convened a number of awareness workshops for the sugar sector; for example, an AIM Progress supplier event in Mexico on sugar held in 2017 brought together sugarcane growers, sugar corporations, traders and refiners, civil society organizations and NGOs, and government representatives. The event’s workshops and presentations included sharing of best practices around health and safety conditions for sugarcane workers, ongoing work to prevent child labor among migrant workers, and a chance to discuss barriers to implementing best practices.[41]


  • Read an Oxfam report about land rights and the sugar industry.
  • Read about the global sugar trade.

Where is sugar reportedly produced with trafficking and/or child labor?

Trafficking risk in sugar production is tied to multiple factors related to recruitment (including third-party labor recruitment and bondage arising from recruitment-related debt), conditions of work, and compensation (including payment through piece-rate systems, inflated prices for essential items at work sites, sexual violence, restrictions on movement, and health and safety concerns). The risk of child labor is closely connected to debt bondage experienced by families involved in sugar production.[4] These factors may manifest both in sugarcane harvesting, conducted primarily through hand cutting, and in sugarcane milling and processing. Health hazards associated with cane production impact sugarcane workers and nearby communities.

Deceptive recruitment and debt bondage can be linked to sugarcane production in many countries around the world. In 2016, Verité research in the Guatemalan sugar sector uncovered evidence of trafficking risk among sugarcane harvesters and found that deception about the nature and conditions of work and housing was common.[5] In Bolivia, indigenous workers from poor regions are recruited by labor brokers to migrate for the sugar harvest; recruiters give these workers advances which ultimately prevent from leaving their jobs, resulting in debt bondage.[6] Sugarcane harvesting has also been linked to debt bondage in India; families may borrow money from a labor recruiter and work in sugarcane fields during the harvest season to repay the debt.[7] Indebtedness may also arise due to sugarcane workers being charged inflated prices for goods and services. In Mexico, many workers become indebted to stores located on agricultural plantations after paying inflated prices for their daily meals and/or necessities. They may be unaware of the high inflation rate and are reportedly paid as little as USD 7.00 a day during the sugarcane harvest through a piece-rate pay system.[8] There have also been reports of induced indebtedness among smallholder farmers to sugar mills, which may charge high milling fees to out-grower and smallholder sugarcane farmers, causing a reduction in their income and making it difficult to recoup the costs of initial inputs.[9]

In addition to experiencing cycles of debt, sugarcane workers often face poor working and living conditions, restrictions on freedom of movement, and sexual abuse. Verité found that sugarcane workers in Guatemala often work excessive hours under dangerous conditions, live in poor conditions, and face wage violations. Identity documents are often confiscated by employers. Furthermore, workers interviewed by Verité reported isolation, confinement, surveillance, violence, dismissal, and blacklisting. Verité’s research also noted that migrant indigenous workers appear to be highly vulnerable to abuses.[10] Verité also found indicators of forced labor in the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic. Worker interviews indicated that some workers were physically confined to sugar plantations due to isolation, had limited access to information, and were made vulnerable by laws that restricted the movement of immigrant workers with identity cards.[11] In Maharashtra, India, married couples who migrate from across the state are hired to cut sugarcane during the harvest season; female migrant workers are reportedly raped and sexually assaulted by labor brokers or landlords during this time.[12]

Compounding the factors of vulnerability described above, there have been reports of an epidemic of a severe, fatal chronic kidney disease (CDK) among men in sugar producing regions, especially in Latin America.[13] Although the exact cause is unknown, studies indicate that it is likely caused by a combination of a lack of breaks, rest, and drinking water,[14] combined with exposure to pesticides,[15] long working hours, the use of painkillers to get through strenuous workdays,[16] and even the consumption of sugar itself.[17]  

There were also reports that the piece-rate system, widely used to compensate cane cutters, combined with a lack of contracts and written records of payments and production, contributed to an increased risk of wage theft, compulsory overtime, and child labor. In Guatemala, cane cutters are typically paid on a piece-rate basis per weight of cane harvested, but the workers are generally not provided with records or payments and deductions, leading to suspicions of wage theft.[18] Furthermore, many workers have to work overtime and/or seek help from family members in order to meet production quotas or to earn the minimum wage or enough money to survive. In many cases, only men’s production is registered, and men receive the payment for the work of their children and wives or domestic partners, making women dependent upon their husbands. This wage structure also incentivizes the use of children, who are especially vulnerable to trafficking.

In many countries, adolescents are employed in sugarcane harvesting and children are employed in lighter tasks, such as stacking harvested cane, or in peripheral services. In addition to the piece rate system, children’s employment in sugar production may also be linked to their family’s debt bondage.[19] Children working in this sector face numerous challenges and health and safety issues including cuts, infections, and respiratory problems; poor living conditions, sometimes without potable water and sanitary facilities; long hours that often exceed legal working limits for their age group; and low wages, due to the fact that children are often casual laborers and/or are assisting family members.[20] A 2017 International Labour Organization study in Cambodia found that more than half of the children surveyed worked beyond the maximum limits set for their age group and found that in Veracruz, Mexico, children were working more than thirty-five hours a week, primarily in sugarcane fields.[21] A 2014 study indicated that 30 percent of sugarcane harvesters in Mexico began working in the sector between the ages of five and 14.[22]

Sugar production requires large amounts of land, leading companies to use aggressive tactics as they seek to control enough land to meet production needs.[23] In Malawi, for example, forced evictions by the Cane Growers’ Trust and local police have been reported; according to a British Broadcasting Channel (BBC) article, two farmers were killed while resisting land seizures in 2014.[24] Affected communities suffer adverse impacts on their food security and livelihood opportunities.[25] The expansion of sugar plantations has led to many land conflicts in Guatemala, most notably in the Polochic Valley, where forcible evictions of indigenous communities have drawn international condemnation. In March 2011, hundreds of state security forces and private security personnel forcibly evicted 769 families from the valley, allegedly burning down their houses and crops, using tear gas, and attacking residents, resulting in the death of one person. While large-scale sugar production is no longer taking place in Polochic, this case serves as a cautionary tale of the negative impacts of land grabs and displacement.[26]

Burning fields prior to harvest is a common practice, intended to burn dry leaves, making cane cutting slightly easier, and rid the area of pests, while leaving stalks and roots intact.[27] This practice, however, can cause significant respiratory distress for nearby residents.[28] Other health hazards from hand harvesting sugarcane include injuries from machetes, carrying heavy loads, exposure to pesticides, injuries from machinery, and heat exposure.[29]


[1b] U.S. Department of Labor. 2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. 2018

[2b] U.S. Department of Labor. 2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. 2018.

[3] U.S. Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report. 2018.

[4] International Labor Organization. Child Labor in the Primary Production of Sugar. 2017.–en/index.htm

[5] Verité. Research on Sugar in Guatemala. Vision. January 2017.

[6] Anti-Slavery International. Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Bolivia. 2016.

[7] International Labor Organization. Child Labor in the Primary Production of Sugar. 2017.–en/index.htm

[8] Spears, Tara. “Mexican Sugarcane Industry: Swing that Machete.” Sol Mexico News. July 5, 2015.

Torres, Anel. “Cañeros de la Cuenca, trabajo duro y pocas ganancias.” NVI Noticias. February 27, 2017.

Marosi, Richard. “Company stores trap Mexican farmworkers in a cycle of debt.” LA Times. December 12, 2014.

[9] International Labor Organization. Child Labor in the Primary Production of Sugar. 2017.–en/index.htm

[10] Verité. Research on Sugar in Guatemala. Vision. January 2017.

[11] Verité. Research on Indicators of Forced Labor in the Supply Chain of Sugar in the Dominican Republic.

[12] Chandran, Rina. Reuters. « Sexual abuse plagues female workers on India’s sugarcane fields.” August 2, 2016.

[13] Beaubien, Jason. “Mysterious Kidney Disease Slays Farmworkers In Central America.” National Public Radio (NPR). April 30, 2014.

[14] Laux, Timothy, et al. “Dialysis enrollment patterns in Guatemala: evidence of the chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes epidemic in Mesoamerica.” BMC Nephrology. April 14, 2015.

[15] Shapiro, Lila. “A mysterious epidemic plaguing Central America may be linked to climate change.” Huffington Post. October 16, 2015.


[17] Storr, Will. “What is killing sugarcane workers in Central America?” The Guardian. October 13, 2012.

[18] Verité. Research on Sugar in Guatemala. Vision. January 2017.

[19] International Labor Organization. Child Labor in the Primary Production of Sugar. 2017.–en/index.htm

[20] International Labor Organization. Child Labor in the Primary Production of Sugar. 2017.–en/index.htm

[21] International Labor Organization. Child Labor in the Primary Production of Sugar. 2017.–en/index.htm

[22] Garcia Ortega, Martha. Migraciones Laborales en la Agroindustria Azucarera: Jornaleros Nacionales y Centroamericanos en regions cañeras de México. October 16, 2014.

[23] Oxfam. Sugar Rush: Land rights and the supply chains of the biggest food and beverage companies.2013.

[24] Butler, Ed.  “Villagers Losing Their Land to Malawi’s Sugar Growers.” BBC. December 17, 2014.

[25] Chasukwa, Michael. “An Investigation of the Political Economy of Land Grabs in Malawi.” Land Deals Politics Initiative. 2013. Chasukwa.pdf.

[26] Verité. Research on Sugar in Guatemala. Vision. January 2017.

[27] Mager Stellman, Jeanne. International Labour Organization. Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety: Industries and occupations, Volume 3. 1998.

[28] The impact of sugarcane-burning emissions on the respiratory system of children and the elderly.

Cançado JE, Saldiva PH, Pereira LA, Lara LB, Artaxo P, Martinelli LA, Arbex MA, Zanobetti A, Braga AL.

Environ Health Perspect. 2006 May;114(5):725-9.

PMID: 16675427

[29] International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour Safety and Health Fact Sheet Hazardous Child Labour in Agriculture Sugarcane.

[30] FairTrade Foundation. FairTrade and Sugar. 2013.

[31] ActionAid. Contract farming and out-grower schemes. March 2015.

[32] ActionAid. Contract farming and out-grower schemes. March 2015.

[33] ActionAid. Contract farming and out-grower schemes. March 2015. f

[34] International Labor Organization. Child Labor in the Primary Production of Sugar. 2017.–en/index.htm

[35] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Sugar as Animal Feed.


[36] Chang, Kaison. Overview of Sugar Policies and Market Outlook. Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). 2012.

[37] Canadian Sugar Institute. Food and Non-food Uses of Sugar.

[38] Smedley, Tim. “Sustainable sugar: Coca-Cola and BP signed up but will it go mainstream?” The Guardian. September 15, 2014.

[39]International Labor Organization. Child Labor in the Primary Production of Sugar. 2017.–en/index.htm

[40] Liebkind, Joe. “Coca-Cola and US State Dept Use Blockchain to Combat Forced Labor.” Investopedia. March 21, 2018.

[41] “AIM-PROGRESS holds supplier event in Mexico on sugar.” AIM-PROGRESS. November 16, 2017.