Hid­den agony be­hind our crav­ing for cashews

Beloved by ve­g­ans, they’re the superfood fly­ing off the shelves. But as this in­ves­ti­ga­tion shows, there’s a...

Daily Mail - - Brexit In Crisis - by Emily Clark

THE pain is usu­ally worse in the evening, when an­gry, weep­ing sores start to ap­pear. Wash­ing does lit­tle to al­le­vi­ate the agony, it just opens old wounds.

And there are plenty of those — six years’ worth, map­ping her hands like scorch marks. She winces as she pre­pares din­ner for her hus­band, daugh­ter and two sons.

Chop­ping onions and chill­ies is tor­ture. And be­cause she eats with her hands — there are no knives and forks here — the spicy curry can make her cry out in pain.

This is the life of Pushpa Gandhi, 30, in south­ern In­dia, who sup­ports her fam­ily as a cashew nut sheller. She’s an un­seen face of the in­dus­try feed­ing the UK’s vo­ra­cious ap­petite for the nuts — we ate 17,000 tonnes in 2016, 35 per cent up on 2012.

The rise in ve­g­an­ism is thought to have played a part in our in­creas­ing con­sump­tion. Cashews are in en­ergy bars, but­ters and sal­ads as well as ve­gan al­ter­na­tives to milk, cheese and creamy pud­dings.

A good source of pro­tein, mag­ne­sium, potas­sium, iron and zinc, the mo­noun­sat­u­rated fats they con­tain help pro­tect against heart disease.

But there’s a catch to cashews. The nuts — nearly all pro­cessed in In­dia or Viet­nam — are dif­fi­cult to ex­tract and are there­fore shelled by hand. A cashew has two lay­ers of hard shell, be­tween which lie caus­tic sub­stances — car­dol and anac­ardic acid — that can cause vi­cious burns.

Burns are a fact of life for up to 500,000 work­ers in In­dia’s cashew in­dus­try, nearly all women. They are em­ployed with­out con­tracts, with no guar­an­tee of steady in­come, ome, no pen­sion or hol­i­day pay.

Many don’t even get gloves, and if they did, they prob­a­bly couldn’t af­ford to wear them. Gloves would slow their shelling down, and they are paid by the kilo. When their pain be­comes un­bear­able, they need medicine — and, of course, they must pay for it. So they soothe the acid burns with ash from their fires.

I was hor­ri­fied when I found out my diet might be fund­ing this mis­ery. I’m a ve­gan, and the dairyfree ‘cheeses’ I love typ­i­cally use cashews. The creamy sauces I love BUT in pasta bakes do, too.

I had no idea about how they were be­ing pro­duced. And so I trav­elled to the vil­lage of Pud­hukup­pam in the In­dian state of Tamil Nadu to meet the nut shellers.

When Pushpa was younger, she wanted to study English at univer­sity and be­come a teacher. Her par­ents didn’t ap­prove, so she mar­ried at 18 and started work — first as a farm worker, then here.

Sit­ting on the ground among heaps of cracked cashew shells, she says her life is over. It’s not just the repet­i­tive work that has worn her down. Her face and arms bear sim­i­lar scars to her hands, caused by the cashew acids.

‘It’s al­ready start­ing to burn,’ she says, five hours into her day. ‘To­day when we go home and wash, we will see the boils on our skin. It takes about a week for them to heal. But as the old ones heal, new ones keep com­ing.’

The char­ity Traid­craft Ex­change blames these con­di­tions on the way Euro­pean buy­ers — in­clud­ing UK su­per­mar­kets — ag­gres­sively push down prices, forc­ing cashew com­pa­nies to hire cheap labour.

Fol­low cashew supply chains back and you will find women and chil­dren in un­reg­u­lated shelling units all over In­dia. The youngest work­ing with Pushpa was 13. There are reg­u­lated fac­to­ries where con­di­tions are bet­ter — for ex­am­ple, in the ad­ja­cent state of Ker­ala. But when buy­ers squeeze sup­pli­ers, shelling is out­sourced over the bor­der to un­reg­u­lated units. Pushpa earns just 200 ru­pees a day, or £2.15. A bro­ker pays her 7p per kilo­gram of un­shelled nuts, and she pro­duces 10kg of shelled cashews a day.

A 200g packet of cashews in Tesco is £3, so had the nuts Pushpa shelled been des­tined to go there, at this price, just 1.4 per cent of the money we pay would go to her.

The salary is mea­gre, but enough to sur­vive — when work is avail­able. The women at this unit say there can be breaks of up to two months when crops suf­fer.

Com­pe­ti­tion from Viet­nam, where the whole in­dus­try has been au­to­mated, has seen hun­dreds of In­dian fac­to­ries shut.

The Viet­namese de­signed and built all their own cashew ma­chin­ery to cut labour costs, but In­dia just doesn’t have this ma­chin­ery, be­cause most grow­ers haven’t had the chance to in­vest in it.

Pushpa’s hus­band is a builder, whose in­come is also un­sta­ble. When they strug­gle to pay bills they take out a loan with an in­ter­est rate of 3 per cent per month. So far, they owe £550.

This puts pres­sure on work­ers like Pushpa to shell faster to earn ex­tra cash — mean­ing ac­ci­dents are more likely. Pushpa has caught her fin­gers sev­eral times in the blades of the shell cut­ter.

Uma Jaya­murthi, a nurse at the lo­cal Cud­dalore med­i­cal cen­tre, says she has seen sev­eral pa­tients in the past year who have chopped AroUNd off the top of a fin­ger.

40 per cent of pa­tients at the cen­tre have cashewre­lated in­juries. ‘ The main rea­son peo­ple come here is when the cashew acid goes un­der their nails and it gets in­fected,’ says Uma.

But she adds they only come when the pain is ‘un­bear­able’, be­cause of the cost.

There would be fewer in­fec­tions if shelling units had ba­sic wash­ing fa­cil­i­ties, but many do not. At Pushpa’s, there is nei­ther a toilet nor a sink with soap and wa­ter. Coworker Yashoda, 48, who has asthma, says: ‘ As chil­dren, we ques­tioned why the hell we were born into such poverty. Ev­ery day we live our lives with­out any kind of fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity and that is al­ways weigh­ing down on me.’

We play our part in this cy­cle of de­spair. So, how can we change it? Boy­cotting cashews is not a so­lu­tion — women like Yashoda and Pushpa would lose their jobs. Fairer pay from su­per­mar­kets would be a start — as would a trans­par­ent supply chain. The ‘coun­try of ori­gin’ on Sains­bury’s cashews says ‘ packed in France’ — hardly en­light­en­ing.

Bri­tish su­per­mar­kets should also bet­ter po­lice their supply chains. All the ma­jor UK su­per­mar­kets, in­clud­ing Sains­bury’s, Asda and Tesco, have vol­un­tar­ily signed up to the Eth­i­cal Trad­ing Ini­tia­tive (ETI). In or­der to do so, they had to say nine ‘ base code’ rules — in­clud­ing safe and hy­gienic work­ing con­di­tions, no child labour, liv­ing wages and reg­u­lar em­ploy­ment — were al­ready in place.

The Bri­tish re­tail Con­sor­tium, which rep­re­sents su­per­mar­kets, said they have ‘ro­bust safety and wel­fare stan­dards and sup­port sup­pli­ers in meet­ing these through au­dits, train­ing and in­depth in­ter­views with work­ers’.

A spokesman added: ‘re­tail­ers are con­scious of the prob­lems that ex­ist in parts of In­dia’s cashew in­dus­try and there­fore are care­ful to work with sup­pli­ers who pro­vide de­cent work­ing con­di­tions.’

But Fiona Gooch, of Traid­craft Ex­change, says pro­duc­ers ‘ are un­der too much [price] pres­sure’ to com­ply with the agree­ments.

She says fi­nance ex­perts should cross­check wage slips with a sam­ple of work­ers, and su­per­mar­kets should send health and safety teams to in­spect fac­to­ries.

How­ever, fac­tory vis­its can only do so much as work­ers can­not al­ways speak freely.

As cus­tomers, we can act too. By con­tact­ing su­per­mar­ket head of­fices by email, phone or letter we can de­mand that they are meet­ing their obli­ga­tions.

So this morn­ing, as you dig into por­ridge with pome­gran­ate seeds and cashews, or spread cashew but­ter on toast, think of Pushpa and Yashoda. It’s time our ma­jor su­per­mar­kets did, too.

Cashew mis­ery: Yashoda shelling thou­sands of nuts with just one glove and (above) her acid burns are treated with ash

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