Debt bondage, exploitation spoil India’s golden mango harvest

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Bangalore | Updated: May 31, 2016 9:58:55 AM

But workers' rights campaigners say the industry in Tamil Nadu flourishes on the back of overworked and underpaid seasonal, migrant labourers like Ali, who comes from the northeastern state of Assam.

mangoes-ei-LIndia’s mango pulp market caters to some of the world’s biggest food and beverage players including PepsiCo, Coca Cola and Unilever. (Source: IE)

It is noon and Dilbar Ali is racing against time.

The first truckloads of mangoes from the orchards of Krishnagiri-Dharmapuri region in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state have arrived. The fruit needs to be unloaded, sorted, graded and packed – all before dawn. So lunch will have to wait.

The mangoes need to get to the export houses and food processing factories immediately, to keep up with demand for both the fruit and its pulp, which is used in drinks that fly off supermarket shelves in summer.

“It will be like last night – non-stop work, with a breather only tomorrow morning,” said Ali, heaving another sack of mangoes onto a weighing scale.

India’s mango pulp market caters to some of the world’s biggest food and beverage players including PepsiCo, Coca Cola and Unilever. In 2014/2015, it exported almost 155,000 tonnes of pulp worth 8.4 billion rupees ($126 million) with Yemen, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait among the top destinations.

But workers’ rights campaigners say the industry in Tamil Nadu flourishes on the back of overworked and underpaid seasonal, migrant labourers like Ali, who comes from the northeastern state of Assam.

A lack of rain, global competition and fluctuating prices are squeezing profit margins of many growers in the region.

“The sector is very labour intensive,” Mathew Joji of the non-profit International Justice Mission told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Besides low wages, to ensure there is no manpower is lost, there are restrictions on their movements, which is a clear violation of the workers’ rights and a method of bondage.”

India is home to more than 18 million people living in some form of modern slavery, the greatest number of any country, according to the third Global Slavery Index released on Tuesday by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.

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