The Continuing Exploitation of the Global Sugar Trade, with Megha Rajagopalan

May 13, 2024 33 min listen

In collaboration with Marymount Manhattan College and their Social Justice Academy: Labor, Work, Action, Doorstep co-host Tatiana Serafin speaks with New York Times investigative reporter Megha Rajagopalan about human rights abuses in the global sugar trade and the challenges of holding governments and corporations accountable.

Exploitation of Sugar Trade Doorstep podcast link Exploitation of Sugar Trade Doorstep podcast link

TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome to this edition The Doorstep podcast. I am senior fellow at Carnegie Council, Tatiana Serafin. My co-host Nick is not with us today, but he will join us next time.

I am welcoming today Megha Rajagopalan, the investigative reporter from The New York Times who wrote a brilliant and important piece called “The Brutality of Sugar: Debt, Child Marriage and Hysterectomies.” We are going to discuss this piece and Megha’s work at The New York Times in a special and joint edition of the podcast with Marymount Manhattan College’s Social Justice Academy. We are live with students here at Marymount Manhattan College, engaging with this very important work that speaks to audiences everywhere, bringing international issues to your doorstep because this work actually discusses something happening in another part of the world that we take for granted.

We will go into that and sugarcane production more in a second, but, Megha, I wanted to again say thank you for coming and speaking with us. I want to start out, because we have a lot of journalism students in this piece and I feel like many in our audience ask about how journalism is made today—how you get the ideas; how you get the stories. This project was a collaboration between The New York Times and The Fuller Project. I would like for you maybe to start and talk about The Fuller Project, The New York Times, collaboration, and the state of journalism and investigative journalism today.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for having me on. It is really great to be here and to talk about this piece.

We were lucky to be able to collaborate with The Fuller Project on this. They are a nonprofit newsroom based in New York, and they primarily work on issues affecting women, mostly in the Global South. It just so happened that I have quite a good friend who is an editor at The Fuller Project named Maher Sattar. We had actually been discussing this subject for a little bit of time. There had been some press reports in India in local newspapers about some of the issues around women’s health and specifically the hysterectomies issues as it pertained to women sugarcane cutters.

When I started reading about it, I was like, huh. Maharashtra is a huge sugar producer, and I started to wonder if there was something we could do in the context of the global supply chain and also something that would look at the whole picture of all of the abuses that these women face, ranging from issues around forced labor, child labor, and all the way to issues around their health and reproductive freedom.

We started discussing that, and I ended up partnering with this reporter named Qadri Inzamam, who is an Indian journalist and had an interest in the issue and had already traveled to the region by the time we started working together on it. It was a great collaboration because we both brought different perspectives to the work and also because we both had different kinds of interests in it.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I believe these collaborations are so important and it is important for our audience to understand that it takes a lot of effort to put together these kinds of stories.

One of the other aspects of the story that is interesting if you look at it online are all the photos and videos. You had a big team going out there and creating this work. In the piece you talk about many reporters who worked on the project. Can you give us a sense of the scope and the timing of the project?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I am exceedingly lucky I think in the context of modern journalism in that I have a job that affords me more time than most people would have to work on projects like this. Because I am an investigative reporter it is sort of expected that things will have a broader perspective and might take a little bit longer. This was a long time even for me, but I just learned a ton. I joined the Timesonly a year and change ago, a year and a half or something like that, and it has been an amazing experience to see the resources, effort, and the care they put into big journalistic projects like this.

As far as our team, I hope everyone had a chance to look at it online, but I thought the visuals were so stunning. I was lucky to be able to work with an amazing Indian photographer named Saumya Khandelwal, who not only took all of the photos but also did video and set up drone shots so that we could see the fields around the factories and give readers a sense of the scope and scale of what is actually happening.

We also worked with a woman named Ankur Tangade, who is a local researcher and translator. She was not only great at the research and interviewing part, but she also happens to speak the very specific dialects they speak in that part of Maharashtra, which I learned is not obscure but is a singular dialect and is not mutually intelligible with the dialects of Marathi that are spoken in big cities like Pune and Mumbai. That was really lucky. I think the four of us worked together on the project along with my editor at the Times and the editor at The Fuller Project.

TATIANA SERAFIN: You mentioned you spent a lot of time working on this project and a lot of it is on-the-ground work, which we feel in the piece because we get these very personal stories. You mention at the top that you are looking at the supply chain, so you are looking at the women working in the fields and that can of Coke or Pepsi, that chocolate from Cadbury you get at the end.

We don’t often think about this. We go into a store, we think it is accessible, especially here in the West. We are here in New York City, shelves are full, and we can get whatever we want. We don’t often think about the origin of it, and I think that is what is so important about this piece and about your work, bringing to light the issues of the global supply chain in the sugar trade.

When you were looking at this, where did you start? There are many women in this story. Ms. Chaure’s story was one of the big threads in the piece. How did you find her and how can we relate her story to that can of soda you are buying in the market?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I had done these supply chain stories before, and the challenges vary, but generally the challenge is, like you said, how do you connect that one product, that can of Coke or whatever the product is, to the people who actually make it. It sounds like a simple question, but in practice it can often be quite challenging.

I went into this project thinking, I want to be able to find laborers or at least one person who basically has a direct connection to a can of Coke or Pepsi—or whatever the product was going to be; we didn’t know it was going to be Coke or Pepsi at the beginning. Essentially what that required was figuring out how the system actually worked.

In the beginning I was thinking, This is going to be a nightmare, because in India sugar is produced primarily on smallholder farms. It is not like the way it would be in the Dominican Republic or other countries that produce sugar that are dominated by one particular company on the agrarian side. India is not like that.

I was thinking, Among all of these farms, how are we going to figure out who supplies what sugar mill that supplies what multinational? It turned out that was not really the issue. We ended up finding out that the system essentially had four parts:

Basically there is the company that buys the sugar at the very top. That could be a multinational; it could also be an Indian company, of course. Underneath that you have the mills that produce the sugar out of sugarcane, and under that you have these middlemen who are responsible for hiring the laborers, and then below that you have the laborers themselves.

The landowner almost does not come into this specifically in this part of Maharashtra as far as the labor is concerned. The farm owner basically gets a cut of the profits from selling the sugar that is grown on their land, but they are not responsible for hiring the laborers or anything like that. That is what makes this part of India quite unique. In other sugar-producing parts of India you do not see this system, particularly in the northern belt, like Uttar Pradesh and other places.

To your point about how we found Archana Chaure, basically I went in a little bit blind. We did not know what we were going to find, so I showed up on that first reporting trip, we went out, and I was like: “I want to talk to anyone who works on these sugar farms cutting sugar, and I want to talk specifically to women who have gotten hysterectomies in the course of doing this work within the last year and a half or two years.” The reason we were looking at that timeframe was because basically in 2019 there was a governmental report that sought to reform the situation, so I wanted to see if that report had actually done any good. We ended up finding tons of these women.

At first, I was like, even this is going to be hard because a lot of these women for the most part left school quite early, many of them do not consider themselves to be literate, they don’t manage their own finances generally—it is their husbands who do it—so there are lot of things even about their own lives that they do not have the ability to determine and do not necessarily know in great depth, so I was wondering how much they would know about this entire system.

It turned out they knew a lot. I think almost every single woman we talked to, even though it was their husbands who were mostly dealing with these middlemen, they had their contacts and knew all about them, and they had talked to them and everything. They also generally knew which sugar mill the sugarcane that they cut was supplying. Then it just became a matter of talking to these women and finding out what sugar mills they were supplying.

Basically then what we ended up doing was we used some public records, things like business records, and also interviews with people who worked for these mills, to find out which multinationals they were selling sugar to and which Indian companies as well. Coke and Pepsi are obviously huge buyers of sugar globally, and they also buy sugar in this region. We found mills that supplied them, and that was how we drew that link. Basically Archana Chaure supplies a sugar mill that is owned by a company that is a Coke and Pepsi supplier as well as a supplier for many other companies.

I think that is one reason we focused on her just because that link is so clear, but to me the bigger reason is just that I interviewed dozens of people in the course of this and Qadri did as well. She stood out to me from the first moment I met her. She was an incredibly outspoken and very thoughtful person, one of these people who talks really fast because she has so many thoughts she has to get out.

She was a great character to bring to readers because she is not a person who just—when you talk to her you do not have this feeling that she is the sum of all of these bad things that have happened to her. She has a real spirit about her, she has ambition, she has things that she wants to do in life, and she is also a mother and cares deeply for her children. There was a complexity to that, and I am grateful that I met her because she was an amazing person to write about.

TATIANA SERAFIN: If we could stay with her story for a second, she had so many great quotes in the piece that you captured of her personality. One of the things that struck me—and it goes to your point that women do not really have a voice because they are controlled by their husbands—her quote was that she did not remember what year she got married. She was like: “I think I was 14. I didn’t know my husband. We went together into the fields because couples go into the field.” Can you talk more about this kind of marriage of children, child labor, and how that is also part of the system?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: This is in a way where this kind of exploitation starts. When these people are very young, particularly for girls but also including boys. Pretty much every woman that we spoke to said she had gotten married essentially as a teenager. Child marriage is, of course, illegal in India, and it is something they are trying to eradicate.

There are mixed reasons for this. I am not going to say it is totally the sugar industry’s fault or anything like that—there are cultural reasons this happens; there are economic reasons this happens—but in terms of the sugar industry what surprised me is that this type of work is one of the factors that influences families to push their daughters to get married early. The reason is that when a man goes to cut sugar he can do it by himself, but if he brings his wife along with him—and it is almost always his wife; it will not be some other kind of partner, like a friend or something like that—he can essentially make double the money for the household. The way it works is that the man cuts the sugar and the woman bundles it.

Many of these women come from sugarcane-cutting families and their parents were sugarcane cutters. They are born into this work. When they become preteens or teenagers it becomes a bit of a burden on the family because when they go to migrate to cut sugar they have to take their daughters with them, and if they are taking a child with them the child does other tasks. They often work themselves. They will haul water from wells or gather basically the green parts of the sugarcane to use as fodder to feed livestock. There are other things that they do that also count as work, but they are not getting paid at the same level as they would be if they were part of that two-person system, which is called a koyta.

Essentially these families think: Well, I can’t keep migrating with my daughter forever. If she gets married, she will then be able to bring in money, and they think it is just about time to do that.

Marriage is so intrinsically linked in this part of India to sugarcane cutting that there is actually a term called “gate-cane” marriages, which essentially describes these very young couples being married at the gates of the sugar mills. They do this literally right before the cutting season starts, specifically so these couples can go into the harvest together. This still happens. In terms of timing, most of the weddings you will find in that region are happening right before the season starts. This shows how intrinsically it is linked.

Another thing that shocked me is that these middlemen who are hiring the laborers—remember, these are guys who work for the sugar mills themselves. We interviewed some of these middlemen, and they were like: “Yeah, I’ve arranged marriages. I’m involved in this. I introduce people, so that they can form these pairs, and basically I can be their middleman between them and the sugar mills.” So there is a financial incentive there as well.

For me personally I was quite surprised because when you think about child marriage generally we think about it as a cultural phenomenon, and it is a cultural phenomenon and an economic one, of course, but there is so much complexity when it comes to the incentives there.

These are not families that hate their daughters. They love their kids and want them to have a better life than they did, just as parents anywhere do, but there are strong financial incentives that push them in this direction and push them away from other things like, for instance, educating girls and making sure that they can go a little bit farther in life.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of financial incentives, part of what happens I think—and that you mention in your story—is that they are not getting paid upfront but are getting loans, so it becomes a cycle. The cycle begins with the marriage and then it is this debt cycle that you cannot get out of so that you need to continue to work. To go back to what you mentioned, then the women feel compelled to have hysterectomies. Can you talk with us about these contracts and this idea that you just have to stay in that field and that no matter what you cannot leave that field?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Basically the way the system works is that at the beginning of the season these middlemen give the laborers an advance. They say: “We’ll give you this lump sum upfront, and then you work the whole season, and then you will pay it back.” Sounds good, right?

I think there are benefits of this system to the laborers. For instance, if you need fix your roof or if you have to pay a medical bill or something, it is good to have that lump sum of money. The middlemen will say that because of that the laborers actually want it that way and we won’t be able to track people if we pay them in a normal way.

What actually ends up happening in practice is that they get this lump sum and end up working the whole season, but inevitably they are not able to pay it back at the end of the season. This is due to a lot of things. One of the things is straight-up duplicity. A lot of these contracts are word-of-mouth contracts; they may not even be written down because the literacy rates are not super-high to be able to understand that kind of language. Because of that it gives the middlemen freedom to say, “Well you still owe money.”

They will also deduct money. For instance, if somebody has a doctor’s appointment, if they are sick, if they are pregnant, if they are on their period, for any of these reasons not only do you not earn that day but because you took that advance you actually have to pay the middleman back for missing that day of work.

This is catastrophic because it results in women working literally until the day they give birth. They will be out in these fields. We interviewed a woman who had given birth on the field itself because she did not want to miss work. She had her baby, and the women around her basically helped her. There were no doctors or anything. They cut the umbilical cord with whatever it was they had lying around, and she was back at work a week or two later. It is that strenuous.

This advance system is interesting to me because obviously in India in a lot of different industries you have issues of predatory loans. This is not a conventional loan because they are not charging interest per se, but because of the difficulty of paying it back it turns into this system that many people told us is essentially tantamount to debt bondage because year after year after year they have to keep coming back.

I want to add that one question we have gotten a lot on this story is: “Yes, this is bad, but what else would these women do? There is not a ton of industry where they live.”

We asked a lot of these women that: “What would you do if you could get out of this thing where you have to keep going back year after year after year?”

Lots of them said: “We want to migrate. We would migrate to a city, be a housekeeper,” basically do something else. I think primarily what a lot of these women expressed is that they wanted to do work that was not agricultural work. They wanted to do work that was in the home, basically sheltered from the sun because that was the thing that was most difficult about it as well as the fact that the labor is backbreaking.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I went to look at the response that Coca-Cola gave to your article, and they said that they: “Condemn abuse in any form within our supply chain and take these reports very seriously. We are committed to respecting human rights wherever we do business and have prioritized addressing these issues in our global operations and supply chains.”

Your work made an impact. They responded. Have you seen an impact in terms of what they are really doing?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: That is a good question. That is something we are trying to report out currently. This is a line of coverage for us, and we will hopefully continue to follow it I think.

I have not yet seen anything from them basically saying that they are going to cut out these suppliers or do something else to try to change the system. I just want to emphasize that for Coke’s part or any multinational—not to single out Coke—that is sourcing there, it is not just about cutting off problematic suppliers because this system exists in the state.

Multinationals have made commitments to say, “We’re not going to use forced labor in our supply chain; we are not going to use child labor.” These are all things that they say to consumers so that consumers can feel good about purchasing their products. They trade off of that reputation.

They can do any number of things to tell their suppliers: “We want more information on the workers that you are hiring and what they are being paid. We want to put money into corporate social responsibility programs, so set up schools or any number of initiatives like that. We will not work with you if you don’t comply with our principles about human rights and supply chains.” They have the ability to do all those things. Whether they take any of those paths or any other path that might be open to them remains to be seen.

For multinationals sometimes it can be a slow process. Especially Coke and Pepsi are absolutely massive companies. Just because they have not done anything yet does not necessarily mean that they won’t.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Is there anything at the doorstep, at the consumer level, that we can do? One of the ways we are doing it here at Carnegie is raising these issues and highlighting these stories. Is there anything more that consumers can do that you found in your research to connect that supply chain right to our local market?

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: I guess it is important to note that the products that are being made with this sugarcane are not necessarily being sold in the United States although it is the same companies. On a purchase level I would not say stop buying Coke or whatever because it is not necessarily the same thing.

In terms of what consumers can do, in general I think there has been this movement of consumer awareness of the impact that our purchases have on the world and particularly with the younger generation. I think it has been inspiring actually. Just in all of our purchases to be more conscious I think does matter. When you look at it in a couple-of-year timeframe or whatever, it looks like it is not doing anything. I think that conversation is probably moving slower than many people would like, but I think if you look at that conversation over the past 25 years or something, there have been big changes in how brands treat supply chain management.

There is actually an interesting law that has come onto the books in the European Union this year called the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, which essentially will compel companies to eradicate human rights abuses in their supply chains. That is a product of decades of work and lobbying by advocates. I think ultimately that goes back to consumers and consumer choices. I think if consumers didn’t care about this, then none of that would have happened. I would say just with your individual choices don’t think that you are not making an impact. I think that is one thing.

The other thing I would say is very cliché but effective: Write your lawmaker. I think there is a limit to what the United States can do in cases like this just because the sugar is not necessarily being exported to the States.

Before this project I worked a lot on China and products made with forced labor in the west of China. In those cases the U.S. government—it took a few years—eventually took quite a hard line on products being exported from the Xinjiang region of China because of the overwhelming evidence that forced labor was being used. They have the power to do that because there is a law on the books in the United States that specifically bans goods made from slave labor to be imported to the United States.

In practice there are people in the U.S. government who have to figure out if goods are made with forced labor, and that is an extremely laborious and difficult process, and they often cannot figure it out unless they have reports from nongovernmental organizations and media and people who look at this and publish about it. It is something that the U.S. government cares about, and when they do find concrete evidence about it they seem to act on it I think.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you. We have our live audience here. Thank you so much for your question, Elliott. The question, Megha, is: “Why do you think this issue does not get as much play as it can?”—if I can paraphrase your question. “Some of the students here at Marymount are interested in this issue, but this is the first time some of them are hearing about it.”

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: It is a really good question. I think there are a couple of reasons. This is just my opinion; I don’t know for sure. I think one thing is that it is probably not necessarily an incredibly “newsy” issue. There are things about this that are very contemporary to our moment, one of which is that India has become a much bigger sugar producer than it used to be. Also the rise of the Indian economy is important as a piece of context, but this hysterectomy thing has been going on for a long time, decades in fact.

I think that also shocked me, that nobody had fully put it together. It is not that it is not reported at all. There are a lot of good Indian journalists who have been to the region and done various kinds of investigations on it, but I think what we wanted to do is bring it to a broader audience and also try to illustrate how it connects to the rest of the world and to multinationals specifically and also look at other aspects of the issue I think that have been underexplored around debt and child marriage. That is probably one reason it has been underexplored.

Another is probably just that I think very cynically that a lot of editors would see something around human rights abuses in India around people who make different kinds of goods as a story that has been told before and something that is not necessarily unexpected.

My editors at the Times were overwhelmingly supportive of this project from day one. I never got any pushback or anyone saying, “This isn’t a news story,” but in my own head when I was ready to pitch this piece I was thinking, Oh, what if they think it is not surprising enough, not unusual enough, what if they ask why are we focusing on this now? I think there is some of that there. You have a developing country that does not have the best labor standards and then you are writing a story about how that lack of labor standards is impacting people. It lacks a surprise element.

I think this is a problem in journalism. I don’t know what the solution is. I will say that when you publish stuff like this you never really know how people will respond to it, and in this case it did get a crazy amount of page views. We also published a three-minute video for people who do not want to read that absurdly long article, but the video got tons of views on TikTok, Instagram, and our site as well.

I also got lots of reader email. A lot of people did come to the piece and a lot of people read it. Just anecdotally from the people I heard from, a lot of them were Indian but a lot of them were not. A lot of them like you were hearing about it for the first time and just read it through. I would like to say one reason for that is the narrative at the heart of the story. I think that is a very helpful way to tell a story like this.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely. We want to thank you from Marymount Manhattan College’s Social Justice Academy and our students here for your time today and for bringing us this story. We look forward to following all of your work and wish you much success. Thank you.

MEGHA RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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