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Final Thoughts (For Now) on Modern Slavery in the Coffeelands

2015-12-21 Comments

For more than a week we have been writing here about Brazil’s extraordinary effort to eradicate modern slavery, and how that effort relates to the country’s coffee sector. Today is the eighth, final, and perhaps most important post in the series. The one that answers the question, “So, what?”

So, now we know this terrible thing about coffee in Brazil. What do we do with that information?

Here’s we should NOT do with it: punish Brazil’s coffee sector.

Here’s what we SHOULD do with it: use it to engage more proactively with supply chain actors there on labor issues in coffee, and to send a message to other coffee-growing countries that the coffee industry wants more of this kind of information, not less.



Better governance, not worse labor practices

The labor practices we have described here are not pretty. But we am pretty confident there are labor practices in the coffee sectors of other countries that are just as bad, if not worse. The difference between those countries and Brazil may not be that Brazil has worse labor practices, but better governance. Certainly it has a better track record in fighting modern slavery than any other coffee-growing country in the global South.

Dual commitments to worker protections and transparency

We learned about this problem only because Brazil’s government has married its extraordinary worker protections with a deep commitment to transparency.

Punishing transparency and truth-telling encourages the opposite

When we punish countries for the content of the information they produce as a result of their commitment to transparency, we discourage them from being transparent in the future. Punishing Brazil’s coffee sector would create a powerful disincentive for other countries to follow Brazil’s lead, which is of course precisely what we should want other countries to do.

We interviewed U.S. Department of Labor veteran Rachel Rigby recently about her work on the List of Goods Produced with Child Labor or Forced Labor, which identifies 14 countries whose coffee sectors rely on child labor. In that conversation, she offered some important insight that is relevant here. She told me that “countries that are transparent and open about data collection and dissemination are often the most cited, but this doesn’t mean they have more child labor than other countries.”

“Sometimes countries can feel that they are being punished for being more open about the problem,” she said. “For just that reason, we need to be supportive of those countries that are willing to be leaders in confronting these issues.”

Is the information uncomfortable? Certainly. Does it position us to identify, address and ultimately remediate the worst labor practices in coffee more effectively than we could in the absence of that information? Absolutely.



International alignment

Brazil’s campaign to end modern slavery has won praise from labor rights advocates and criticism from a substantial number of domestic opponents who believe the country’s definition of modern slavery is not aligned with international standards as defined by the UN’s International Labor Organization.

The letter of Brazil’s slavery law may be legitimately questioned by critics, but the spirit of the country’s campaign against modern slavery—particularly its strong protections of workers and its commitment to freedom of information—is deeply aligned with emerging standards for worker protections and supply chain transparency in the world’s leading consumer markets.

Brazil isn’t out of step with international norms.  It may have just been a little ahead of its time.

Its work is consistent with the focus of the California Supply Chain Transparency Act and the UK’s Modern Slavery Act—two recent measures that have obligated companies to improve and/or disclose their efforts to mitigate labor risk and eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains.  The Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015 and the End Modern Slavery Act—two measures currently before the U.S. Congress, the first a federal version of the California legislation and the second similar to the UK Modern Slavery Act—suggests they are likely harbingers of things to come.

Supply chain risk management

At a time when both the marketplace and government are demanding more information from coffee companies—and all companies, for that matter—about the social and environmental conditions of production in their supply chains, Brazil has put in place people, processes and systems to make that information available. It isn’t just positioned to help coffee companies deliver better information to consumers and government oversight agencies—it is positioned to help them more effectively identify and remediate risks in their supply chains.



There is an anecdote from the 2014 edition of Let’s Talk Coffee we have shared before, but want to repeat here as it seems especially resonant in this context.

The event opened with a panel discussion on the state of the coffee industry. That conversation explored the implications of public policy for the coffee trade, with SCAA Executive Director Ric Rhinehart suggesting that the composition of a country’s coffee sector—the degree to which it is inclusive of smallholders and farmworkers—is in large measure a function of its policies.

During the Q+A that followed, a Brazilian grower asked whether Brazil’s policies—particularly its strong environmental and labor protections—make the country’s coffee growers less competitive vis-à-vis growers from other countries with weaker regulations.

Carlos Brando, whose sterling coffee pedigree (International Coffee Organization, World Bank, Sustainable Trade Initiative, Coffee Quality Institute and UTZ Certified, among others) makes him a kind of unofficial ambassador of Brazilian coffee, was on the panel with Ric.  He didn’t miss a beat in responding to the question: “No, they don’t make you less competitive, they make you more sustainable.”

His suggestion was that Brazil’s growers are generating value they are not capturing through environmental and social management practices that may be better than those of growers from other countries; that the trick is not to roll back the protections, but to figure out how to leverage them more effectively in the marketplace to the advantage of the growers who comply with them.

Ric added, to finish the 1-2 punch that represented perhaps the single best moment of Let’s Talk Coffee: “It’s not that Brazil does too much. It’s that everyone else does too little.”

And that is the challenge to industry. Will industry pull back from Brazil because its government was courageous enough to tell an inconvenient truth? Stand by idly and watch the mechanisms that allowed this information to see the light of day in the first place be dismantled? Punish it for its commitment to the kinds of transparency that specialty coffee says it wants more of?  Shift its sourcing away from Brazil to places with weaker labor protections, joining the race to the bottom that characterizes so many other sectors of our economy?

Or will coffee reward Brazil? Lean in instead of leaning away? Seek deeper engagement on labor issues in Brazil’s coffee sector?  Speak up in defense of tools like the Dirty List and InPACTO and use them to manage supply chain risk?  Join the country’s fight against modern slavery?



This is not about 15 coffee estates in Brazil that appeared on the government’s Dirty List.  It is not about the more than 400 workers who were rescued from those estates by Brazilian labor inspectors.  It isn’t about calling out Brazil because we found evidence there is slavery in its coffee sector—modern slavery is everywhere.  And it isn’t really even just about coffee.

It is about 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.  About food systems that rely on modern slavery as much as any other sector of the global economy.  About Brazil’s investments against that backdrop to in pass laws, build systems, develop processes and refine tools to help companies create safer and more dignified working conditions while more effectively managing risk in their own supply chains.  It is about coffee’s role in our global agricultural economy and how coffee will engage with farm labor issues in places like Brazil that are conducive to success in the campaign to end slavery, human trafficking, forced labor and child labor.

We don’t see anywhere else in the coffeelands where there is such an enabling environment for engagement on these issues. Nowhere else where industry’s investment is more likely to generate the kinds of returns it will in Brazil. If the incidence of modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector is as low as our research suggests, it is easy to imagine that committed engagement from coffee industry leaders in the United States and Europe could achieve in Brazil’s coffee sector the goal the country has set for its entire economy: the eradication of modern slavery.

Now that’s an aspiration worth pursuing.


<< Previous: The National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor

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This is the final post 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.



  • Chris Stack says:

    Very good work

  • Chris Bacon says:

    Many thanks to your team for this thoughtful series. Are there plans to take this effort to other coffee producing countries / regions?

    • Coffeelands says:


      Always great to hear from you. Especially when it is with kind words. 🙂

      Yes, indeed, there are plans in the works to expand this kind of research as part of our new global Coffeelands program—to seek deeper information and engagement in Brazil and support similar research in other coffee origins.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Always great to hear from you. Especially when it is with kind words. 🙂

      Yes, indeed, there are plans in the works to expand this kind of research as part of our new global Coffeelands program—to seek deeper information and engagement in Brazil and support similar research in other coffee origins.

      Are you asking out of personal interest or professional interest? As someone who has devoted his professional life to supporting better outcomes in the coffeelands or as someone seeking research partnerships on emerging issues? If the latter, I would be delighted to involve you in the planning process!


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