SFU Fairtrade launches cashew campaign to encourage safer manufacturing practices

Cashews are dangerous to harvest and have been linked to forced labour

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a clear glass jar with cashews inside
Cashews have a dangerous chemical in their shells that can burn skin during harvest. PHOTO: Krystal Chan / The Peak

By: Karissa Ketter, News Writer

Content warning: mentions of violence and forced labour

SFU Fairtrade has launched a campaign to encourage local BC businesses to make the switch to Fairtrade cashews. The Fairtrade program offers farmers protection against market fluctuations, supports sustainable practices, and ensures workers are paid a livable income.

Canada continues to be a major consumer of cashews, often sourced from India and Brazil. Alongside these two countries, Vietnam is among the biggest exporters of cashews. As more companies emerge to supply cashew-made products such as cashew milk, cashew ice cream, and cashew cheese, the demand for these nuts grows. 

Cashews are dangerous to harvest because their shells contain anacardic acid — an extremely toxic chemical. SFU Fairtrade reports workers are often asked to shell the cashews with their bare hands, exposing them to the anacardic acid. 

The Peak spoke with program coordinator Daphne Chan to find out more about the campaign. “We want to educate the public to change their consumer behaviours,” said Chan. “When they do grocery shopping, we want them to think about [two things] — will this product be benefiting farmers? Or is it going to support child labour and other [labour] problems in the Global South?”

There are multiple reports from Vietnam of forced labour centres where workers undergo brutal conditions as part of a drug treatment program. In Vietnam, people who use drugs are arrested and placed in labour centres as a form of therapy. According to the reports, detainees work for up to seven hours a day under threat of abuse. 

One worker, Que Phong, reported to Human Rights Watch that the resin from the chemicals on the cashews burnt his hands. He was forced to continue working and was threatened to be slapped by the staff if he refused. 

Their work is severely underpaid or unpaid entirely. Phong was paid less than $3 USD a month for his labour. The drug treatment programs are often advertised as one year, but are often extended for two or three. Phong worked for five years.

In an attempt to aid these labour issues, SFU Fairtrade said they have sent three emails to local BC cashew companies to encourage stocking Fairtrade nuts. Through their research, they discovered the popular cashew nut brands in BC, and they focused on those businesses. 

SFU Fairtrade is currently waiting for responses. They hope to communicate with the businesses to discover their interests and concerns about the Fairtrade program to see what is stopping them from participating. 

Chan reported SFU Fairtrade is planning a documentary screening in March to educate students on the manufacturing and sourcing processes of cashews. 

To find updates on the documentary screening or the campaign progress, visit their Instagram, @sfufairtrade.