You’ll be hard-pressed to find a pub snack as ever-present as nuts. Whether scoffed straight from the packet or poured into a bowl for surreptitious salty browsing, nuts are one of those features that any self-respecting bar needs to have on-hand. Nuts are so much a part of the furniture that we never seem to give any serious thought about where they come from. Though the vast majority of the snacks enjoyed by western pub patrons are grown in far-flung tropical plantations, nuts stopped seeming exotic a long time ago. Perhaps because we are so used to seeing them, the truth behind the industry has been ignored for decades.
As one of the world’s most popular nuts, there are few food industries that can claim to have the global reach and influence of cashew farming. Second only to peanuts in global consumption, cashews have been embraced by communities across the world for their flexibility, flavour and nutritional value. Served with salt and pepper as the ultimate gentrified party snack and turned into cream by desperate vegans longing for normal dairy, there are few limits to what a cashew can accomplish. Unfortunately, everyone’s attempts to get their hands on them have come at a cost.
As the world’s largest producer - with a 37 per cent total share of the entire global market - Vietnam is the world’s undisputed cashew capital. Products grown here are distributed around the world, and the industry hit a record high in 2017 of more than $3.5 billion worth of exports. Yet, beneath this success story, something sinister has been going undocumented for decades.
In 2011, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a damning report alleging widespread human rights abuse right at the heart of the industry. According to HRW, many Vietnamese cashews are farmed and produced by captured drug addicts, forced to work as part of their ongoing rehabilitation programmes.
According to then-HRW director and report editor Joseph Amon, Vietnam has a booming economy built off the backs of those battling addiction. Amon and HRW alleged that there are 40,000 people detained in 123 drug rehabilitation centres scattered all over the country. There, addicts are forced to undergo “labour therapy”, which can see them manufacture clothing, make building materials or, as is most often the case, process cashews. The camps enforce a strict regime of 10-hour working days, remunerating each worker with no more than a few dollars each month for their efforts.
Though the camps hide behind the veneer of an official state-sanctioned rehabilitation programme, the reality of the industry is nothing less than slave labour. The HRW report reveals incidents of beatings from truncheons, electric shocks from cattle prods and food and water deprivation for anyone who refuses to work. Amon added that what’s taking place at the centres “constitutes torture under international law”.
As if the prospect of beatings and slavery wasn't bad enough, there are several more insidious side effects to being consigned to the camps. In their raw form, cashews are highly poisonous and can cause significant damage if exposed to the skin. One worker told HRW that "I would sometimes inhale the dust from the skins, and that would make me cough," adding that, "if the fluid from the hard outer husk got on your hands, it made a burn." These conditions, coupled with the fact that “labour therapy” has been shown to be one of the least effective means of rehabilitation, are a real indictment of the Vietnamese cashew industry.
With billions of dollars at stake, the prevalence of forced labour is clearly a concern for companies with business interests in Vietnam. Some have already taken a stand - terminating their relationships with Vietnamese sub-contractors as a result of the allegations. However, despite the impact of the initial HRW report, there is still some doubt over how prevalent these so-called “blood cashews” actually are. Vietnamese officials were quick to dismiss the claims as propaganda from countries jealous of Vietnam’s dominance of the marketplace. Though there seems to be strong evidence against the Vietnamese government’s position, the industry is so murky that it is difficult to say with any certainty exactly what is going on.
Whatever the realities of the situation, the cashew industry remains inherently controversial. The awkward, uneven shape of the nuts means that the vast majority still need to be processed by hand - putting workers at risk of sustaining damage from the product’s corrosive juices. Even in plants not manned by drug addicts, working conditions are incredibly challenging and even dangerous. So great is the global demand for cashew products that we have created a situation ripe for exploitation.
Seven years on from the HRW report, limited efforts have been made to improve the approach of the industry. The Vietnam Cashew Association, founded in 1990, says it has taken steps to reduce the number of cashews processed in drug rehabilitation camps and fair trade organisations have sought to improve the wellbeing of labourers who rely on the crop for their livelihoods. Nevertheless, much cashew nut production continues to operate in the shadows. Though they continue to be a key part of everyday life across the world, one thing is clear - there is more to cashew nuts than meets the eye.