On Bahn Mi and Blood Cashews

December 7, 2014 • Glimpses, Print, Theme, Vietnam • Views: 1647

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By Rachel Brown and Anna Russo

Human Rights Watch calls them “blood cashews,” because the Vietnamese cashew processing industry raises so many ethical qualms. The world’s largest exporter of cashews, Vietnam exported approximately 261 thousand tons of cashews worth $1.7 billion in 2013. And the U.S. is the largest purchaser of Vietnamese cashews, buying nearly 35 percent of exports. But, many American cashew consumers do not realize that some of Vietnam’s cashews are processed in forced labor camps, which are euphemistically known as “centers for social education and labor” or “centers for post rehabilitation management.”

In Vietnam, government-run centers for the rehabilitation of drug users often require the inmates to engage in manual labor. An estimated 123 detention camps operated in Vietnam as of 201 and housed 40,000 inmates, although not all camps were involved in cashew processing. In certain labor camps, however, detainees must work for eight hours a day, six days a week, manually processing cashews often at shelling the nuts at a rate of one cashew every six seconds.

Those involved earn well below the minimum wage and are exposed to numerous health hazards. Processing cashews by hand, which involves removing the shells from the cashew kernels, releases poisonous substances that can cause allergies, rashes, and respiratory damage.

One detainee, Cua Lo, who spent two years in labor camps, reported to Human Rights Watch that “I would sometimes inhale the dust from the skins and that would make me cough. If the fluid from the hard outer husk got on your hands it made a burn.” However, processing cashews by hand in the labor camps is far cheaper than using expensive machinery to remove the shells. Thus some companies are believed to have their cashew processing done in the camps. Even Vietnam’s largest cashew processor, Long Song J.S.C., is believed to be implicated.

While relatively little media coverage focuses on the issue of cashew processing specifically, the overall labor conditions in Vietnam’s detention facilities has been raised in discussions over Vietnam’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free trade agreement. Perhaps, one day it will eventually be possible to enjoy cashews without a side of guilt.

Rachel Brown ‘15 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics major in Saybrook College. Contact her at rachel.brown@yale.edu.

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I view all things fusion with a certain level of foodie disdain. Call me a purist, an old fashioned restaurateur, a rejecter of globalization, but Italian food and sushi were never meant to be served on the same table. Banh Mi is the sole exception. It is the perfect sandwich, full of French and Vietnamese flavors that blend as perfectly as the architecture on the colorful streets of Hanoi. Banh Mi stalls are on almost every street corner in Vietnam, identifiable immediately by the overflowing baskets of crispy baguettes that hang off the sides of the portable kitchen. When a customer approaches the stall in search of the perfect lunch, dinner, or mid-afternoon snack, the Banh Mi master immediately cracks an egg on the skillet, the hissing of the frying egg mixing with the infinitely satisfying crack of baguette as she cuts open a Vietnamese baguette—less chewy, more crumbly than the French variety—perfect for these sandwiches. The egg goes on one half of the bread, with some pickled vegetables and the distinctly Vietnamese sauces and spices on top. Then the choices begin: påté? Pork? Chicken? Just an egg and vegetable classic? The whole shebang? Your choice, and you can’t go wrong. Just take a bite of your perfect sandwich, egg yolk mixing with pickled tang and creamy pâté, and for just that single second, you might forget the evils of imperialism.

Anna Russo ‘17 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at anna.russo@yale.edu.

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