On September 30, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) published its biennial List of Goods produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. The ILAB identified coffee from several countries, including Brazil, as a commodity at high risk of being produced by child and forced labour.
Multiple NGO and media investigations have revealed poor labour conditions in the Brazilian coffee industry and identified that coffee beans sourced on Brazilian plantations using slave labour were supplied to brands including Nestle, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Nespresso and Nucoffee.
What do we know about modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector and what can businesses do to mitigate risk?
The Brazilian coffee industry
Brazil is the world’s biggest producer of coffee and grows one third of the world’s crop. The majority of Brazil’s coffee is produced in the three states of Minas Gerais (56%), Espírito Santo (24%) and São Paulo (9%). Most Brazilian coffee growers are smallholders but medium and large growers account for 75% of all production. In 2013 it was estimated that approximately eight million workers were employed in Brazil’s coffee sector. The Global Slavery Index estimates that at least 369,000 people are subject to slave like working conditions in Brazil.
Modern Slavery in the Brazilian coffee sector
The Brazilian Government introduced the lista suja (“Dirty List”) in 2004; a register which “names and shames” companies and individuals found guilty of using forced labour. RightsDD has categorised, by industry, 284 of 332 entities included on the Dirty List; 28 were coffee growers. Between 2011 and 2019 Brazil’s Special Mobile Inspection Group (GEFM) identified and liberated 442 victims of modern slavery at Brazilian coffee farms. This amounted to 13% of all victims identified during the period.
Our analysis indicates that Minas Gerais -the state where over half of Brazil’s coffee is grown- hosts the largest number of entities listed (70).
Common Modern Slavery risk factors in Brazil’s coffee industry
Type of work
Exploitative labour practices can take place in all stages of the coffee supply chain but plantation workers are particularly vulnerable as harvesting is a labour intensive and physically demanding process. Plantation workers can be exposed to dangerous pesticides and fertilizers, extreme weather conditions and excessive working hours of up to 15 hours per day. Wages are typically low and often below Brazil’s minimum wage.
Demand for temporary labour surges during the May to August coffee harvest. Partly as a consequence, 40-50% of coffee plantation workers are employed informally with little or no protection and benefits. The informal nature of their employment limits workers’ ability to raise complaints and exposes them to wage theft.
Coffee farmers often recruit workers through labour brokers known as ‘gatos.’ The system is vulnerable to abuse as gatos are usually paid a fixed fee for recruitment, transportation, provision of housing and food, supervision of work and payroll. Gatos often recruit workers under false promises and charge high recruitment fees (e.g. for travel expenses), leaving workers in debt. In some cases workers' identification documents are retained upon arrival to prevent them from leaving their workplace until they have repaid debts. A high proportion of workers are domestic migrants, recruited from the poor north east of Brazil to work in the central coffee belt.
Guidance: How to mitigate slavery risks?
Businesses sourcing coffee beans from Brazil or producing coffee in Brazil are advised to conduct thorough due diligence of their supply chains to avoid ethical, legal, reputational and financial risks. See our guide to modern slavery due diligence to learn more or contact RightsDD for support.
You should also equip your employees with the skills to spot the warning signs of abuse, to learn more see our guide to modern slavery training.