When we read at Passover, “This year we are slaves; next year, may we be free” we can do our part to ensure that our Pesach celebrations—and all year long–are free of the stains of modern day slavery. Despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibition against slavery, approximately 35.8 million men, women and children worldwide are enslaved, more people than at any point in the history of humanity. About 10 percent of enslaved people work in food industries, harvesting cacao, sugar, and tomatoes, raising cattle or catching fish. The frequent battle for cheaper prices in the global food marketplace might seem great for consumers, but “the reality is that competitive pricing is often the result of exploitative labor practices” where food is grown in disregard for human dignity and international laws.
Luis CdeBaca of the US Department of State asks, “How much of my life is impacting modern-day slavery?” Whether it’s foods grown in the US or abroad, one can find slavery in the supply chains of products in any US supermarket. Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, argues, “the motivation for our response, what moves us to create a world based on tzedek, justice, must go deeper than simply saying, ‘We were slaves in Egypt once upon a time.’” We are each part of the global food supply chain; knowing where and how our food is grown and what we buy has an impact.
Most of modern-day slaves are “trafficked” (the use of force of coercion for workplace exploitation). Slaves are forced laborers often in debt bondage (indebted to employer before work begins) and often are threatened with or experience physical abuse. Slavery is not “another” country’s problem but one that happens in the United States. Legal loopholes and labor exemptions, low wages, and limited education, enables exploitation, abuse and enslavement of workers in the US agricultural industry (both immigrants and natural-born citizens). Cases of slavery have occurred with Chilean sheep and cattle herders in Colorado, Haitian and Mexican tomato pickers in Florida, Mexican and Guatemalan citrus workers in Florida and the Carolinas, and Haitian pea and bean workers in South Florida. Workers in these cases experienced physical abuse, debt bondage, forced labor, no medical attention and confiscated passports to prevent them from leaving.
Choose a common processed food item, such as a candy bar, and one can easily trace many of its ingredients, from chocolate to palm oil to sugar, to slave labor. West African countries such as Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana supply more than 70% of the world’s cacao (cocoa beans) to the $60 billion chocolate and candy industry led by food conglomerates such as Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle. “On average, cocoa farmers earn less than $2 per day, an income below the poverty line. As a result, they often resort to the use of child labor to keep their prices competitive.” Children, sometimes as young as five years old, end up working on these farms; their families are poor and they are told that they will be paid well, or they’re sold to traffickers, unaware of the conditions their children will face, while others are kidnapped. Former slave Aly Diabate, who harvested cacao, explained, “Some of the bags were taller than me. It took two people to put the bag on my head. And when you didn’t hurry, you were beaten.. . . The beatings were a part of my life. I had seen others who tried to escape. When they tried, they were severely beaten.”
Cargill is the largest importer of palm oil, a frequent ingredient in candy bars, as well as soaps, lipstick, detergent, ice cream and cookies. Rainforest Action Network has accused the company of using palm oil from a subsidiary with slave labor. And a candy bar isn’t complete without sugar. The United States imports 20% of its sugar, with “the Dominican Republic . . . , sending over two-thirds of their annual export. Slavery is extremely prevalent in the nation’s sugar industry, with the vast majority of workers coming from neighboring Haiti.”
With awareness and activism there have been changes, most notably amongst tomato pickers in Florida who “were paid $0.50 for every 32 pound bucket of tomatoes they pick (We pay $75-80 in the store for the same 32-pounds of tomatoes),” adding up to an annual salary of about $10,000. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots, worker-led organization “convinced consumers and companies to pay a “penny-per-pound” premium to tomato pickers and established a code of conduct that bans on-the-job harassment and unpaid labor.” T’ruah’s “Tomato Rabbis” supported this historic worker-led movement. Companies such as Subway, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods signed on to the program, which now benefits 90% of Florida’s tomato pickers. T’ruah also partnered with Fair Trade Judaica which sells kosher, slave-free food, including chocolate and coffee.
In addressing this global human rights crisis, Rabbi Kahn-Troster calls on Jews to look beyond Passover. “When the seder has ended, we cannot return to how it has been “on all other nights. We commit to bringing the lessons of the seder into our actions tomorrow, the next day, and every day to come.” Jews are obligated to insure workers are treated well, to be responsible consumers and to protect strangers (repeated 36 times in the Torah). We each have a responsibility and opportunity to apply these teachings and values when we purchase food. No narrative is more powerful than our liberation from enslavement; we can continue to live our story today by working to end slavery for millions of others.