17% INCREASE IN IMPORTS
OF CASHEWS INTO EUROPE IN THE LAST 5 YEARS
(CENTRE FOR THE PROMOTION OF IMPORTS, 2019)
276,368 METRIC TONS
OF SHELLED CASHEWS EXPORTED FROM VIETNAM 2016
(INTERNATIONAL NUT AND DRIED FRUIT 2017/2018 STATISTICAL YEARBOOK)
WHY IS THE JOB DANGEROUS?
The cashew nut is not like a peanut that is dug up easily from the ground. It is actually a hard protrusion at the end of a cashew nut apple. After plucking the protrusion from the fruit, the edible part of the nut is retrieved by the shellers who manually crack open two layers of shell. When the shells are opened, a dangerous mix of cardol and anarcardic acid sandwiched between the two layers is released, potentially causing terrible burns on the shellers’ skin due to their acidic nature.
This danger has been posed in the cashew nut industry for a long time. However, with the increased popularity of the nut due to vegan and vegetarian diets, the production of the nut has taken on a greater intensity. Being a cashew nut sheller has been low-wage work for a long time, with wages varying between $0.50 to $3.50 a day. Imagine living with that kind of wage! With increased demand and the market pressure to drive prices even lower, the income of the shellers are in danger of being lowered still, despite the high risk of having permanent injuries.
What’s more, “cottage production,” an informal form of employment where women take nuts home to shell, is common in India. Without a formal contract, they have no rights as an employee. This means that if their employer wishes to lower their salary, no one can say anything about it.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
Unfortunately, since cashew nut shelling is done by hand, many workers have had their hands badly burnt from the corrosive acids in the shell. The acids cause boils and infections on their fingers, with some eventually resorting to cutting off the tips of their fingers so that they can continue working and receiving an income. Many of the workers choose not to wear gloves as it slows down the process, and since many of these workers are paid by the volume of nuts they are able to shell, they rather suffer burns than lose their already meagre incomes.
Undoubtedly, this is a complex issue that involves the businesses within the cashew nut industry as well as local policy makers who should safeguard the welfare of their citizens. What can we do as consumers who seem far away from the problem? Even if everyone stops eating cashew nuts altogether, the effort may be futile as these workers will seek out other work that may keep them within the low-wage income cycle.
One thing we can do is to be aware of the problem and make better choices. Our knee-jerk reaction is to reach for the cheapest option at the grocery store, but a better choice would be to consciously select ethically-produced items. Look out for fair-trade labels, which are indicative of fair (not low!) prices in order to promote social and environmental standards across the production process. It is more likely that the cashew shellers are earning a fair wage too!