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Modern slavery is still a problem for the coffee sector in Minas Gerais

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Ministry of Labor investigators rescue workers labouring in conditions analogous to slavery in a coffee farms in the state of Minas Gerais. Image by Adere

MILAN – Brazil’s prohibition on modern slavery is enshrined in Article 149 of its penal code, which prohibits “reducing someone to a condition analogous to that of a slave” and establishes four conditions that violate the prohibition: forced labor, debilitating workdays, degrading working conditions and debt bondage.

When this definition of modern slavery was ratified in 2003, Brazil introduced a new tool in its campaign to eradicate modern slavery: an Employer Register that identifies factories, farms and firms found to be employing workers in conditions analogous to slavery.

The “Dirty List,” as it is popularly known in Brazil, is maintained by the MTE, which publishes an updated version of the list semiannually (Farmworker Protections and Labor Conditions in Brazil’s Coffee Sector, CRS 2016).

As reported by Fabio Teixeira for Thomson Reuters Foundation, an investigation over six months uncovered extensive slave labor running largely unchecked in Brazil’s coffee industry despite years of efforts to clean up the sector.

Exclusively obtained data, analysis of public records, and dozens of interviews revealed coffee produced by forced labor was stamped slavery-free by top certification schemes and sold at a premium to major brands such as Starbucks and Nespresso.

Starbucks and Swiss-based Nespresso have all used coffee plantations found by labor officials to have exploited laborers in recent years, according to the report.

Starbucks: zero tolerance for any form of slave labor

Asked about the findings, the companies – two global heavyweights and a major Brazilian player – said they were committed to tackling slave labor and were working with producers to improve their labor practices and avoid slavery.

Starbucks cut ties this year with a Rainforest-certified farm, which was added to the “dirty list” in April after 25 workers were found by officials in slavery-like conditions.

“We have zero tolerance for any form of slave labor and have engaged (with) … farms about this topic,” a Starbucks spokesman said.

More than 300 coffee workers were found by officials in slave-like conditions nationwide in 2018, the highest in 15 years, but the true extent of slavery in the sector is unknown.

The Economy Ministry said in a statement that there were “no reliable statistics” on the number of workers in slavery-like conditions in any industry in Brazil when asked if the scale of labor abuses in the country’s coffee sector was underestimated.

Minas Gerais has at least 119,000 coffee plantations and hundreds of thousands of workers but only 245 inspectors.

Lack of resources and technical support

“There is a lack of resources, technical support and personnel,” said Adriano Santos, a sociology professor at local university Unifal-MG, who has studied the state’s coffee sector.

Mechanization exacerbates the problem of modern slavery

While mechanization has boosted productivity, replacing man with machine may also have exacerbated worker exploitation.

More than two-thirds of workers on coffee farms in Minas Gerais are estimated to be informal workers, with no right to a minimum wage, overtime pay, severance or state benefits.

“With mechanization, the number of workers has fallen,” said Jorge Ferreira dos Santos, a director at the local chapter of Brazil’s biggest trade union confederation, known as CUT.

“But their situation is more precarious, as they submit themselves to work in whatever conditions they can find.”

Rainforest: a certification system alone is not enough

Rainforest endorses hundreds of coffee plantations in Minas Gerais through a system of ‘group certifications’ despite auditing only a fraction of any collective’s many farms.

In 2017, a Rainforest-backed farm was judged by officials to have exploited workers who were forced to do illegal overtime.

Rainforest said its group certification system was “strong and efficient,” but was considering a change to ensure all farms were independently audited at least once every three years.

“We believe certification is an essential tool for solving … labor challenges on the ground,” Rainforest said in a statement.

“(But) a certification system alone is not enough to achieve the change we want to see on the ground. We need governments, business, and other stakeholders to play a significant role.”