P(our) Symposium 2019: How slavery infiltrates the on-trade

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

17 July 2019

In today’s ethically minded drinks industry, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re doing all you can to help protect the planet and its inhabitants. You’d be surprised to discover, then, that slavery is alive and kicking, and permeates all aspects of life.

Narit Gessler
Narit Gessler

Narit Gessler of Free the Slaves was on hand at this year's P(our) Symposium to educate the audience on some dirty and disturbing secrets.

‘Slavery generates $150bn a year for traffickers, with an estimated 40 million people enslaved around the world,’ she declared. ‘Across the entire supply chain, you’ll find modern slavery. It’s in the cigarettes you smoke, the buildings we sit in and it was probably in your lunch.’

She went on to highlight some of the products and materials that are found in most bars, and have strong links to slavery.


‘A lot of furniture is made out of steel, and a big component of steel is pig iron. To make it you need charcoal, and in order to make charcoal, you need to burn wood. Most of the pig iron that goes into steel come from Brazil. Workers operate in an unsafe environment, breathing chemicals, with little or no sanitation and are forced to be there.’

Simple syrup

‘To make simple syrup you need sugar and water, and 170 million tons of sugar is produced annually. When sugar cane is hacked down, it has a very short life to be sent for refinement. Children as young as five are being put into the plantations and women are often sexually assaulted when they work there.’


‘Lots of bars have t-shirts for staff uniform that are made out of cotton. Cotton needs to be picked, often by little hands, and then it’s spun and woven and then it goes to a factory. In Bangladesh in 2013 a factory collapsed and it killed 1,500 people. The thing that makes me so mad is that the workers heard the building creaking and started seeing cracks coming down the walls the day before. They weren’t allowed to leave, because they were forced to be there.

‘When it comes to bar owners getting t-shirts for staff, anything that’s going to be branded, you have a real choice about where that’s from. Any business owner who says that the bottom line is going to get hurt, that they’re going to go for the cheapest option of a product, they’re saying that they’re ok with labour. That’s a really key point for people to understand.

‘We are connected to the people who are enslaved. If these t-shirts cost a little bit more, isn’t that worth it?’

Narit’s top resources for understanding more about modern slavery (and how to avoid it in your work)

Responsible Sourcing Tool 

Sweat & Toil app

Free the Slaves 

Know the Chain 

Made in a Free World 

Slave-Free Alliance


‘Alcohol is made from raw ingredients, and agriculture specifically targets migrant workers because of the seasonality of the work. Here we see contract slavery, with workers operating in horrible conditions.’

So what can you do? Quite a lot, believes Gessler.

‘First, get educated. You can look up a lime and look up the worst places to buy limes from and then make sure you don’t buy limes from there. [See box for educational resources.]

‘You can create a really cool cocktail and work with a partner to donate all the proceeds to them. To show you’re a socially responsible business is very important. It’s very hard to be slavery free, but you can be aware of it and make better choices. You can even ensure your employees are paid a living wage. Waking up and taking it out of the shadows is a big part of what we can do.

‘I think for people to understand the magnitude is really important. For transnational organised crime, slavery comes in behind drugs and weapons. It’s huge. I don’t think people understand how pervasive it is.

‘You are free, and you have a choice, whereas many others do not. There’s an old saying that knowledge is power, but knowledge without action is useless.’

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