Image source: BBC
The coffee industry in Brazil is plagued with human rights and labour law violations, exploiting underpaid workers living in deplorable conditions. Despite continuous warnings from local and federal governments and human rights NGOs for several years, multinational coffee corporations ignore allegations and persist in buying coffee from farms employing slave labour. This coffee ends up in your cup, and there’s not much you can do about it.
Brazil exports nearly 60% of the world’s coffee production, with most of it coming from Minas Gerais, a mountainous state from the south-east of the country. In this state, over two-thirds of the agricultural workers are estimated to be contractless, meaning that they have no right to minimum wage, overtime pay, or benefits such as social security and pensions. In fact, seasonal workers are paid on average less than half of the local minimum wage.
Workers often enter vicious cycles when working in coffee plantations. They are mostly Afro-Latin Americans coming from poor backgrounds, hoping to earn enough money to send back to their families. But they soon become victims of debt bondage, with no possibility for legal action as they neither have the money to afford legal fees or a contract to prove their status. They have no choice but to submit themselves to work in whatever conditions they can find.
Most of the workers are recruited by plantation owners through labour brokers, known as ‘gatos’. These brokers hire by making false promises, often guaranteeing high pay. This is also frequently done in complete disregard of age, with children as young as 12 found working in Brazilian coffee farms.
The living conditions are distressing and inhumane. A month-long investigation by independent media outlet DanWatch revealed that the provided accommodation was frequently severely overcrowded and without doors, mattresses, drinking water, or even electricity.
Working conditions are equally precarious, as labourers are exposed to deadly pesticides, without any protective equipment. Workers have to purchase most of the equipment themselves and are even often forced to pay their employers for fuel, food, and rent.
In 2021, an inspection revealed several labour law violations in a plantation in Minas Gerais, owned by none other than the president of Brazil’s largest coffee cooperative. There, workers’ pay was being cut by a third to cover the cost of coffee harvesters and fuel for the machines. The farm was certified by the Rainforest Alliance, the leader in the matter. Clients include Nestlé and Starbucks, who had also delivered their own certification to the plantation.
The world’s largest coffee suppliers buy their beans in Brazil, often in obscure conditions. There is a general lack of transparency in the coffee supply chain, mostly coming from the fact that individual farms are organised in cooperatives. Not all farms in these cooperatives are involved in human rights violations, and businesses almost exclusively buy from cooperatives, with no way of discerning.
Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE), which represent almost half of the global coffee market, claim that they only deal through intermediates, and do not directly know their suppliers so are therefore unable to verify potential human rights or labour law violations. Starbucks and Illy, on the other hand, say they conduct independent audits to avoid blacklisted plantations. Nevertheless, all of these suppliers, and others such as Lavazza or Nespresso, buy beans produced in violation of human rights.
Businesses claiming that they are unaware of human rights violations occurring in their own supply chains has been deemed unacceptable by many NGOs, including Oxfam. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights states the following:
“In order to gauge human rights risks, business enterprises should identify and assess any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts with which they may be involved either through their own activities or as a result of their business relationships.”
Local and federal governments are powerless, with only 245 inspectors for over 119,000 plantations in Minas Gerais alone. Nevertheless, coffee has been deemed the “most dirty economic sector” by the Brazilian Ministry of Labour, and the situation “dramatic” in terms of worker abuse. But local economic interest prevails on worker’s rights.
Nevertheless, inspectors regularly free exploited workers, from a couple of hundred to several thousands every year. Employers are almost systematically convicted, and rescued workers are compensated for abusive payroll deductions.
Accusations of modern slavery in Brazil are very serious, and the entire coffee production and distribution chain contributes to these human rights violations. Less than 2% of the retail price goes to the worker – for a £5 coffee, that is a single penny.
Author: Gaspard Rouffin