Workers on various beef farms in Brazil have been found toiling in “slavery-like conditions,” according to a report from Brazilian investigative agency Repórter Brasil, the Guardian reported.
On some operations, workers were paid around $11 a day and were kept in shacks without running water, electricity, and toilets. Since 1995, 55,000 workers have been rescued from similar situations during government audits, according to the Guardian.
The farms engaging in this activity often supply multinational meat processors, the investigative report found, including JBS and Minerva. JBS, for instance, is the biggest meat producer in the world and sold an estimated $35 billion worth of meat to the US in the first seven months of 2020.
The Guardian notes that both JBS and Minerva have vowed over the years to refuse to work with farms that use forced labor but have repeatedly violated this commitment.
JBS has also been fined for an inordinate amount of worker safety violations in the US that have led to injuries, amputations, and hospitalizations, according to the Washington Post.
“We have a zero-tolerance approach to forced labor and also urge anyone who suspects or has evidence of individual or farm-level malpractice to report it,” JBS said in a statement to the Guardian. Minerva said that it would “take appropriate action” if forced labor were found in its supply chain.
The meat processing industry is notorious for worker abuses. In the US, slaughterhouses often hire refugees, undocumented immigrants, and other marginalized individuals — who are often exploited and work in dangerous conditions — for their workforce, according the Economic Policy Institute. During the COVID-19 pandemic, meat factories became cauldrons of viral spread that killed scores of people.
JBS has also been criticized over the years for its environmental record. The company’s ever-growing production of meat has led to widespread deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, and it settled a lawsuit in 2019 in the US for dumping wastewater into bodies of water.
The ongoing existence of forced labor in the meat supply chain is not unusual and speaks to a lack of accountability and enforcement of laws in countries worldwide. The global and diffuse nature of supply chains means that forced labor can often be found in many industries, overlooked by authorities and companies alike.
An estimated 40.3 million people are in conditions of modern slavery and 24.9 million are in forced labor, the International Labor Organization (ILO) reports.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, tens of thousands of children are enslaved on palm oil plantations that supply raw materials to Western companies for everyday food products, according to the Associated Press. The ILO reports that 170 million children are forced to work around the world, often in the fashion and textile industry. The global agricultural sector, meanwhile, relies heavily on the exploited and often forced labor of migrants.
The US Supreme Court recently heard a case against Nestle and Cargill regarding child slavery in their supply chains.
Forced labor is not inevitable. Companies with forced labor in their supply chains can conduct audits, increase transparency, and cut ties with suppliers that violate labor standards, according to Thomson Reuters. They can also identify and work with ethical suppliers. At this point, worker’s rights advocates argue there’s really no excuse for the ongoing existence of forced labor.
On an individual level, people around the world can refuse to shop at companies that have forced labor in their supply chains and call on political leaders to increase accountability and enforcement measures. There’s also a number of impactful organizations working to end modern slavery globally.