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

Sugar Commodity Risk Map
  • Belize (CL)

  • Bolivia (FL, CL)

  • Brazil (FL)

  • 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)

  • Philippines (CL)

  • Thailand (CL)

  • Uganda (CL)

  • Vietnam (CL)

  • Sugar Beets: Turkey (CL)

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

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2016 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, sugarcane is produced with forced labor in Brazil and Pakistan; with forced labor and child labor in Bolivia, Burma, and the Dominican Republic; and with child labor in Belize, Cambodia, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, the Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, and Vietnam.[1] Sugar beets are reportedly produced with child labor in Turkey.[2]

Verité research carried out in 2016 found evidence of trafficking risk among sugar harvesters in Guatemala.[3]

Colombia and the Philippines are listed as Tier 1 countries by the U.S. Department of State 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report. The report lists Brazil, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Turkey, Uganda and Vietnam as Tier 2 countries. Bolivia, Pakistan, and Thailand are listed as Tier 2 Watch List countries. Belize and Burma are listed as Tier 3 countries.[4]

[1] U.S. Department of Labor. 2016 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. 2016.

[2] U.S. Department of Labor. 2016 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. 2016.

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

[4] U.S. Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report. 2016.

What does trafficking and/or child labor look like in the production of sugar?

In several locations, trafficking risk is tied to third-party labor recruitment. In Bolivia, indigenous workers from poor regions are recruited by labor brokers to migrate for the sugar harvest. Anti-Slavery International reports that these workers are given advances by their recruiters and are thereby prevented from leaving their job.[5] Migrant workers in India sugar production also become indebted to labor brokers.[6] They are provided advances for transportation and living expenses, to be repaid at the end of the harvest season.[7] Due to high quotas as well as the disparity in power and information between brokers and workers, workers often end the season in debt, causing them to have to work the next season to pay off the debt. However, the vast majority interviewed in the study reported that they had changed brokers at least once, indicating that the state of bondage is not permanent.[8] Female migrant workers reportedly experienced rape and sexual assault perpetrated by labor brokers or landlords.[9]

Verité research on the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic found indicators of forced labor. 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.[10]

Sugar presents significant work hazards in general. Burning fields prior to harvest is a common practice, intended to burn dry leaves and rid the area of pests, while leaving stalks and roots intact.[11] This practice, however, can have cause significant respiratory distress for nearby residents.[12] Other health hazards from hand harvesting include injuries from machetes, carrying heavy loads, exposure to pesticides, injuries from machinery, and heat exposure.[13]

In early 2014, several sources reported an epidemic of severe kidney disease and death among men in Latin America who worked in sugar production.[14] 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,[15] combined with exposure to pesticides,[16] long working hours, the use of painkillers to get through strenuous workdays,[17] and even the consumption of sugar itself.[18]

Sugar production requires large amounts of land, leading companies to use aggressive tactics as they seek to control enough land to meet production needs.[19] In Malawi, for example forced evictions by the Cane Growers Trust and local police have been reported, and according to a BBC article, two farmers were killed while resisting land seizures.[20] Affected communities suffer adverse impacts on their food security and livelihood opportunities.[21]

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

[6] Marius-Gnanou, Kamala.  Debt bondage, seasonal migration and alternative issues : lessons from Tamil Nadu India. Autrepart. 2008.

[7] Guerin, Isabelle, Augendra Bhukut, Kamala Marius-Gnanou and G. Venkatasubramanian. “Neo-bondage, Seasonal Migration, and Job Brokers: Cane Cutters in Tamil Nadu.” India’s Unfree Workforce: Of Bondage, Old and New. Ed. Breman, Jan, Isabelle Guerin and Aseem Prakash. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009.  

[8] Guerin, Isabelle, Augendra Bhukut, Kamala Marius-Gnanou and G. Venkatasubramanian. “Neo-bondage, Seasonal Migration, and Job Brokers: Cane Cutters in Tamil Nadu.” India’s Unfree Workforce: Of Bondage, Old and New. Ed. Breman, Jan, Isabelle Guerin and Aseem Prakash. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009.  

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

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

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

[12] The impact of sugar cane-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

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

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

[15] 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.

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


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

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

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

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


Forced Labor Indicators in Guatemalan Sugar Production

In late 2016, Verité conducted research in the Guatemalan sugar sector that uncovered a high level of risk to labor trafficking among sugarcane harvesters. Desk research, expert consultations, and worker interviews in areas of production on the southern coast of Guatemala revealed that deception about the nature and conditions of work and housing is common. As in other agricultural sectors in Guatemala, sugarcane workers often fall into cycles of debt, work excessive hours in dangerous conditions, live in poor conditions, have their identity documents taken from them, and face wage violations. Furthermore, workers interviewed reported isolation, confinement, surveillance, violence, dismissal, and blacklisting. According to interviewees, chronic renal failure is a widespread problem among sugarcane harvesters. This is likely due to working conditions that provide little or no access to shade, drinking water, or breaks. Some workers reported being given drinks or pills containing unknown substances, for which they were sometimes charged, that allowed them to work longer.[22]

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


The Mexican Sugar Industry

A number of labor concerns have been identified in the sugar sector in Mexico, which is the world’s sixth largest exporter of raw sugar at 6.5 million metric tons in 2015/16.[23] Fifty-eight percent of Mexico’s child labor is concentrated in the agricultural sector, and although exact numbers of children employed in the sugar sector are hard to come by, a 2014 study indicated that 30 percent of sugarcane harvesters began working in the sector between the ages of five and 14.[24] Workers reportedly make as little as USD 7 daily during the sugarcane harvest, and most are paid on a piece-rate basis.[25] Furthermore, many workers become indebted to stores located on the agricultural plantations, often paying inflated prices they are not aware of for their daily meals or necessities.[26]

[23] United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service. Mexico: Sugar Annual. April 20, 2016.

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

[25] Spears, Tara. “Mexican Sugar Cane 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.

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


Sugar Production and Supply Chain

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.[27] Production takes place on both large commercial estates as well as 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.[28] However, they 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.[29] Previous research has also noted that the expansion of outgrower schemes can result in land grabs on the part of purchasing company.[30]

Sugarcane can be harvested by hand or by machine, but hand harvesting using machetes is typically preferred to avoid damaging the crop and requires less capital and technological investment. Machine harvesting, while potentially more cost-efficient in the long term, is also capital intensive in the short term. Thus, machine harvesting is typically employed on larger scale estates.

After 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.[31] Other products from sugarcane include bygasse (a byproduct from sugar used for electricity), molasses (formed by repeated crystallization of sugar), animal feed, and ethanol/biofuels.[32]

Globally, approximately 173 million tons of sugar is produced annually and production is projected to reach almost 207 million tons by 2021-22.[33]

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

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

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

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

[31] UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Commodity Atlas: Sugar. 2004.

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


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

How do Trafficking and/or Child Labor in Sugar Production Affect Me?

Extracting sugar cane juice with old traditional machine

Sugarcane is used globally in a wide variety of confectionery products as well as 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.[35]

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


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.[34]

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


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

Read about the global sugar trade.

Read Verité’s report on the Guatemalan sugar sector.

Read a summary of Verité’s report on the Guatemalan sugar sector.