Vanilla’s Not-So-Sweet Side

We have written quite a bit on the End Human Trafficking blog about child, forced, and trafficked labor in the cocoa industry, but recent reports point to another favorite sweet treat we should be watching closely. Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla, which grows in pods on small farms throughout the country and are still largely picked by hand. You can listen to an excellent, brief history of the vanilla industry in Madagascar from NPR’s Planet Money here. A recent article in the Sunday Times in the U.K. reveals that young children are often put to work to cultivate the beans that flavor many of our favorite treats.

Through interviews with farmers and children in Madagascar, the article found very difficult conditions for workers. An eight-year-old worker named Noary said, “We work for six to seven hours a day from dawn. Many of my friends work in the fields around here. We don’t go to school. I work with my family. Close to the harvest time we all have to sleep alongside the plants to protect them. Ants cover our bodies.” Another young worker, 12-year-old Jarro Claude, said, “Most of my friends in the villages here work in the fields. As a family, we all have to work. My brothers never went to school and I don’t think I ever will either.”

While the popularity of and demand for vanilla is high and growing around the world, prices for farmers have dropped significantly in the last few years, leading to lower living standards for families that rely on the crop. The low prices farmers receive combined with the labor intensive process of growing vanilla have forced farmers to put kids to work. One farmer in the story lamented, “Life is harder for us than our ancestors. There are so many outsiders here now. Our livelihoods are stolen from us by vanilla suppliers who cheat us.” TransFair USA reports that, “Vanilla farmers usually receive as little as 8% of the export selling price of cured beans.”

The example of vanilla in Madagascar shows that, once again, farmers are trapped in poverty leading to extremely poor working conditions due to the specific policies of corporations. As Amanda Kloer’s recent post on this blog described, putting kids to work in fields instead of school can have devastating and profound consequences on an entire nation’s development. The U.S. Department of Labor also included vanilla from Uganda in its List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, pointing to broader concerns about labor rights abuses in the global vanilla industry.

The companies interviewed for the Times article all stated a general commitment to eliminating child labor in their supply chains, but I can’t help but wonder if they are doing enough to ensure that farmers are treated fairly given the apparent widespread poverty and abuse described in the article. One step in a responsible direction was Ben & Jerry’s recent announcement that it would source Fair Trade Certified ingredients, including vanilla, for its products globally by the end of 2013. Companies have to do more to ensure that vanilla farmers — and all of the farmers involved in producing the ingredients for their products — receive a price for their goods that allows them to have a decent life and to employ workers under fair conditions.

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Published in: on March 19, 2010 at 2:13 am  Leave a Comment  
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