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A Little Perspective on the Scope of the Problem

When we learned more than two years ago that Brazil’s government had cited 15 coffee farms for profiting from modern slavery, we asked our partner Repórter Brasil to help us understand whether those farms contained the full universe of cases of modern slavery in the country’s coffee sector, or whether they were representative of a broader number. Their answer was something like, “We don’t know.”

What we do know is that our collaboration with Repórter Brasil  found no evidence to suggest that there is an epidemic of modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector.  When we turned elsewhere for insight, we did find evidence to suggest that Brazil has the lowest incidence of modern slavery and the best record of fighting it of any coffee-growing country in the world (outside the United States).



One case of modern slavery in the coffee is too much to bear.  By trying to put the 15 cases on Brazil’s Dirty List into some perspective we are not apologizing for the practice—we believe zero-tolerance is the appropriate approach to labor conditions that undermine the human dignity of workers.  We are trying to estimate the scope of the problem as part of a diagnostic process: to see whether the proper prescription for the labor ills that ail Brazil’s coffee sector look more like an ounce of prevention or a pound of cure.



Coffee is hardly the only agricultural supply chain that relies on shameful labor conditions.  Modern agribusiness is a low-margin affair that relies systematically on low-wage labor and working conditions that are questionable if not criminal.  But coffee is far from being the worst offender.  Just over two years ago, The Los Angeles Times published this searing expose of wretched labor conditions on produce farms in Mexico exporting fresh tomatoes, eggplants and chiles to leading U.S. supermarket chains.  It describes conditions very similar to those we found in our research into labor conditions on coffee farms on Brazil’s Dirty List.  The difference is that our research is identifying these conditions in coffee for a U.S. audience for the first time, whereas campus campaigns for farmworker justice involving the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have been going on since the early 1990s.  In other words, labor activists and organized workers have been decrying the labor conditions in tomato fields for decades.  If conditions were as bad in coffee supply chains as they are in produce, investigative journalists would certainly have picked that low-hanging fruit years ago.

Even in Brazil, where coffee has appeared on the list of supply chains implicated in modern slavery for many years, it has been at or near the end of a long list of agricultural products employing slave labor.  The worst offenders in Brazilian agriculture?  Livestock/cattle ranching.  Soy.  Cotton.



Our research estimated of the number of coffee farms in Brazil at over 360,000. Of those, 15—four one-thousandths of one percent of all farms—were on the Dirty List. We suspect the labor practices on those farms are more widespread than the Dirty List suggests. After all, the country’s inspection agencies are understaffed and underfunded, meaning the low number of coffee farms cited is, at least in part, a function of limited capacity for inspection in coffee-growing regions.

But we did not find any evidence to suggest that these 15 cases are part of a slavery epidemic in Brazil’s coffee sector. In fact, many people we spoke with in Brazil who participate in the campaign to eradicate slavery were surprised to learn it was happening in coffee at all. Furthermore, the high rate of participation of Brazilian coffee farms in certification schemes—including UTZ Certified, 4C and Rainforest Alliance, each of which monitors compliance with labor standards—likely contribute to lower rates of slavery in coffee than in other agricultural products with less investment on certification and sustainability.



For some perspective on how Brazil stacks up against other countries in terms of the prevalence of modern slavery, we turned to Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index for 2014, arguably the most comprehensive resource on the issue. What did we find?

That on a scale in which 1 is the highest prevalence of modern slavery (Mauritania, where 1 in every 25 people is enslaved) and 167 is the lowest (Ireland and Iceland are tied at 7 in every 100,000), Brazil ranked 143d. It had a lower rate than any other coffee-growing country in the world, with the exception of the United States.

How does it compare to other coffee countries?

According to Walk Free, people in Kenya were almost twice as likely to be enslaved. In Colombia, almost three times more likely. Four times more likely in Vietnam. Five times more in Ethiopia. In Rwanda, slavery is more than nine times as prevalent as in Brazil.

A low rate of prevalence in a country with a population as large as Brazil’s, however, still leaves the number of people there who are living in conditions of modern slavery unacceptably high. The index estimated that there were 160,000 people enslaved in Brazil in 2014.



The Global Slavery Index also rates every country in the area of “government response,” and that’s where Brazil really blows the competition away.

Walk Free awarded just one AA rating (Netherlands), one A rating (Sweden), and 11 BBB ratings (the United States and 10 others). Brazil earned a BB rating—a rating it shares with countries like Canada. Denmark. Germany. No other major coffee-growing country earned a similar rating.

The Government Response rating is divided into five different categories: support for survivors; criminal justice; coordination and accountability; attitudes; social systems and institutions; and business and government. In this last category, Brazil scored better the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. In fact, for engaging the private sector, the only country out of the 167 surveyed that scored better than Brazil was the United States.

Tomorrow we look at Brazil’s fight against slavery in more detail to better understand why it earns such high marks.


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This post is the fourth in an eight-part series on the CRS Coffeelands blog about modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector.  The series draws on research coordinated by CRS and conducted by Repórter Brasil with the generous support of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and allies working in the coffee sector, including: Allegro Coffee Company, CRS Fair Trade, Fair Trade USA, Equal Exchange, Keurig Green Mountain, Lutheran World Relief, the Specialty Coffee Association of America, United Farmworkers, UTZ Certified and others.  The views expressed in this series are those of its author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the companies or organizations that provided financial support for the research that informed this series.


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