With vegetarianism and veganism on the rise, the need for cashew nut has grown exponentially over the years. With an annual value of over $4 billion, it commands high prices in Western countries and is widely featured in new and trendy recipes. Yet, it is exported from some of the world’s poorest corners, and unbeknownst to the average consumer, those in the lower tiers of the production line of the nut, toil in some of the harshest conditions and suffer daily horrific burns and pain – just to feed the West’s insatiable hunger for cashews.

Because of the delicate nature of the task, most cashew nuts are hand-shelled. Between the layer of the shell and nut, however, are cardol and anacardic acids, which cause burns and open sores when coming in contact with human skin. A lot of the workers involved in the shelling process are not provided with gloves, and even if they were, most opt to not wear them since it would slow their work down. They are paid by the weight of the nuts that they are able to shell.

One nut sheller, Pushpa Gandhi, 30, told the Metro that she is covered in scars from shelling cashews.

“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,” she said.

Nurse Uma Jayamurthi admitted to the paper that she had seen an increasing number of patients who opted to chop off the top of a finger. Around 40 per cent of the patients she saw at the centre where she worked, were because of cashew-related injuries. She said that since most could not afford the medical costs, they only went when the pain became “unbearable”. The main reason for hospital visits was when the cashew acid got under the nails and it got infected.

ActionAid reported that supermarkets are further entrenching these workers in poverty by trying to reduce producer prices, contributing to an explosion in illegal processing operations, where a predominantly female workforce has few rights and little opportunity to demand a better deal from employers. Their research in India found workers processed cashew nuts for as little as 30p a day, damaging their health through exposure to corrosive oil during shelling and smoke released in the roasting process.

With an annual turnover of over $3 billion, Vietnam remains the world’s number 1 producer and exporter of cashew nuts. Yet according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a big percentage of cashew nut production comes from national drug rehabilitation centres where addicts are forced to do gruelling manual labour as part of the rehabilitation program. Furthermore, beatings, electric shock, starvation, and prolonged isolation were used to punish those who refused to work.

Former detainees told the organisation that they worked between six and eight hours a day shelling nuts and some worked even longer. They also said that resins from the nuts caused their skin to burn or itch and that dust from the cashew skins made them cough.

HRW also discovered that the forced labour in the centres was frequently unpaid. And if wages were paid, they were at rates well below the minimum wage. Former detainees also said that charges on their wages for food, accommodation, and “managerial fees” were often levied. Those fees often constituted a substantial amount—in some case all—of their derisory wages.

The authorities were also accused of deceptively portraying the slave-labour like conditions as something positive, stating that one state-controlled media article said that detainees in one particular centre “are given the chance to learn the skill of cashew nuts processing.”

Despite the controversial nature of the cashew industry, the demand for the nut continues to bolster the trade for exploitation. Fuelled by consumption and profitability margins, it is debatable whether sufficient efforts will be made to improve the plight of the workers.