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In Brazil’s Coffee Industry, Some Workers Face ‘Conditions Analogous to Slavery’

A new report sheds light on punishing labor issues in the coffee sector, and on Brazil’s progressive efforts to protect farmworkers.

A worker dries organic coffee beans produced at the Fortaleza Environmental Farm in Mococa, some 300 km northeast of Sao Paulo, Brazil on August 6, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA        (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)
A worker dries organic coffee beans produced at the Fortaleza Environmental Farm in Mococa, some 300 km northeast of Sao Paulo, Brazil on August 6, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)

On some of the 15 Brazilian coffee estates featured on the government’s “dirty list,” armed guards supervised workers and threatened them with force if they tried to leave. In other cases, laborers met physical abuse. Some lived in squalid conditions, toiled more than 10 hours each day, and worked under searing sunshine or driving rain without respite.

A report released Wednesday described the state of affairs on these estates, where workers faced “conditions analogous to slavery,” according to the Brazilian Ministry of Labor and Employment.

The report — researched in 2013 and 2014 by Catholic Relief Services’ Coffeelands project, in collaboration with journalism collective Repórter Brasil — shed new light on punishing labor issues in the coffee sector, and on Brazil’s progressive efforts to protect farmworkers.

Workers on some of the coffee farms taken to task were “regularly required … to apply toxic agrochemicals” without protective equipment, the report found. Others had to give up their identity documents or work their way out of crippling debt.

Released to coincide with the Specialty Coffee Association of America expo in Atlanta, the findings were aimed toward consumers and policymakers, but most of all toward the “specialty” fringe of the coffee industry, which pays close attention to sourcing and supply chains and is uniquely positioned to adopt ethical standards that could pave the way for broader change across less innately exacting agricultural sectors.

Specialty coffee has for decades built a track record for inclusion and transparency, beginning with the emergence of certified coffees in the U.S. market, which introduced a level of transparency that didn’t exist before,” Michael Sheridan, director of the CRS Coffeelands program, told Foreign Policy. “Transparency alone doesn’t solve farmworker issues or issues of modern slavery, but it’s a necessary precondition for addressing these issues.”

“Coffee has consistently pioneered supply chain relationships and sourcing that have been taken up by other crops,” he added

Brazil is the largest producer and exporter of coffee in the world. Most of the country’s estimated 360,000 coffee farms are small-time growers. Coffee accounts for around 8 million Brazilian jobs. The 15 estates that made it onto the government’s dirty list represent an “artificially low” number, the report found: “Researchers could not generate a reliable estimate of the scope of slave labor in Brazil’s coffee sector. … Because of  limitations on the country’s inspection capacity.” Of the estates the researches investigated, mid-sized ones were most prone to poor practices, because small ones were mostly run by families, while large ones had incentives to mechanize extensively and adhere to international certification standards.

Mid-sized estates frequently employ seasonal migrant laborers. For this reason, “farmworkers are a very difficult population to reach and to work with,” Sheridan said.

For the past two decades, the Brazilian policymakers have earned a reputation for progressive efforts to define and address modern slavery. According to Brazilian labor law, workers face conditions analogous to slavery if they are subject to forced labor, debilitating workdays (punishing conditions for more than 10 hours a day), degrading working conditions (squalor and safety violations), or debt bondage — standards more stringent than those of many other countries in the region. Some of these conditions were found on each of the estates that made the list. Male Afro-Brazilian migrant workers were found to be the demographic most at risk.

The report found that the slavery-like conditions were not widespread, but flourished in individual cases and likely went underreported — enough so that companies that do coffee business and Brazil should take a close look at their partners’ labor conditions. Nonetheless, the authors urged readers not to “lean away from Brazilian coffee,” so as not to “punish Brazil for truth-telling,” but instead, to become part of the process of improving the situation.

This tempered approach is characteristic of the Coffeeland project’s philosophy. In a March review of a recent report on modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector by Danish human rights organization Danwatch, Coffeelands wrote: “The labor conditions described by Danwatch are isolated within Brazil’s coffee sector, and not isolated to Brazil’s coffee sector. Readers of the Danwatch report would not have come away with that understanding, which we believe is critically important to any fair treatment of this issue.”

Although Wednesday’s report focused on coffee in Brazil, it situated the country’s coffee-related labor issues amid the context of broader agriculture and labor problems, in Brazil and elsewhere.

“We are part of a global agricultural economy in which the food we eat comes from far-flung farms all around the world that we can’t see, produced under labor practices we don’t well understand,” the report reads. “Estimates suggest there are as many as 21 million modern slaves in the global economy today, and our food systems — including but certainly not limited to coffee — rely on modern slavery as much as any other sector of that economy.”

Photo credit: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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