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This is What Modern Slavery Looks Like

2015-12-14 Comments

The current issue of Vanity Fair features this inspiring profile of one our partners in the fight against modern slavery in Brazil.  The author ably summarizes modern slavery like this: “[It] differs from classic chattel slavery, in which people are held as private property, but to the extent that it treats people as tools to be used and discarded, it is nearly as brutal and degrading.”

When we learned that a small number of coffee estates in Brazil had been cited by the country’s government for profiting from modern slavery, we asked a long-time partner there, Repórter Brasil, to help us understand what it looks like in the coffee sector.  Here is what we came up with.



The story of modern slavery on Brazilian coffee farms often starts in far-flung communities hundreds (or even thousands) of kilometers away from those farms, where workers are recruited by labor brokers known in Brazil as gatos—workers who are generally poorly educated young men living in extreme poverty.  In the case of one coffee estate found to be profiting from slave labor, some workers were transported more than 2,000 kilometers from their communities of origin to the farm where they worked. Gatos often promise one set of wages and working conditions and deliver quite another. So while workers may be “freely accepting” their offers of employment, they do so under false pretenses, with a fraudulent understanding of what their work will entail, what it will pay or both.

The moment workers step onto the buses that will take them to the farms, they start incurring debt, since gatos charge workers for the trip to the work front. And the moment their leave their communities, they are cut off from the social support networks they would turn to in times of need—the distance between the farms where they work and the communities they call home is an important source of their vulnerability.

Brazil’s gatos are part of a sprawling global system of labor brokerage fraught with moral hazard: farm owners pay a flat rate to brokers to manage the entire labor function, from recruitment and transportation to oversight and lodging on the farm. Since labor brokers take home everything they don’t spend, the system creates dangerous incentives for paying workers less than the minimum wage and cutting corners on investment in lodging, sanitation and food. And it showed on the farms on the “Dirty List,” Brazil’s official registry of employers found to be profiting from modern slavery, many of which relied on gatos to recruit their labor forces.

That is partly why Brazil’s penal code doesn’t just outlaw slavery in its Article 149, but also prohibits the kind of labor recruitment practices that are conducive to modern slavery.  Article 207 forbids “Enticement of workers, with the aim of taking them from one location to another in the national territory.”



The living conditions on Dirty-List coffee farms were squalid: houses with dirt floors, bedrooms with no beds or any place to store clothes, kitchen with no stoves or refrigeration to store food, houses with no running water, no trash cans and no system for dealing with solid waste. Workers cooked over open flames on the floor, slept on thin mats on dirt floors, piled their trash on the ground near their houses, walked to fetch water and performed basic biological functions in forests and fields.

Workers were not provided free protective equipment for handling and applying agrochemicals as required by law, or they were offered such equipment for purchase on credit. There was no access to water, bathrooms or shelter in the field. The work was grueling, the days were long, the food was was limited, of poor quality, expensive or some combination of these, and breaks were limited.



Payments were often irregular and frequently less than the amount promised to workers when they were contracted, even without accounting for the deductions for lodging, food, supplies and equipment.  Some workers were not paid at all.  And very few were formally registered with the Ministry of Labor as required by law.



Our research also showed evidence of restrictions on worker freedom, meaning workers who realized they’d been been swindled and decided to get out couldn’t do so easily. There were three primary ways that farm owners restricted workers’ freedom.


Retention of Identity Documents. Upon arrival, workers surrendered their identity documents to farm owners, ostensibly for safe keeping and to formally register them with the Ministry of Labor, although rescued workers were rarely registered. Without their identity cards, of course, workers who decided they had been through enough were not free to get up and go.

Debt Bondage. From the moment they are contracted, workers begin piling up debt, often starting out in the hole and working themselves from the red into the black. Transport from their communities of origin to the farm, the purchase of protective equipment, rent for miserable lodging, food and supplies at company stores on the farm—these and more are all given to workers on credit, on terms that are rarely made clear. Workers often have no idea they are in debt until they try to leave and are informed they aren’t free to go until they settle their accounts, which means working longer than they planned and consuming less than they need. Even when workers manage to pay off their debts, these expenses can leave them with few earnings at the end of a season.

Threat of Use of Force. In some cases, work was supervised by armed monitors, creating the menace of threat for workers who sought to leave. In other cases, workers reported physical abuse.


Of the 15 farms on the Dirty List at the time the research was conducted, seven retained workers’ identity documents, six bound workers by debt, and two did both.



More than 400 workers were rescued from these 15 farms by teams from the Ministry of Labor Special Mobile Inspection Group and other federal and local authorities, but not before a careful review of the terms of their employment and a process of indemnification that ensured workers earned what they deserved under Brazilian law.



Our research didn’t produce overwhelming evidence of clear root causes of modern slavery in the coffee sector, but it did suggest a few conditions that may be risk factors for modern slavery.

Destitution.  The workers rescued from coffee farms on the Dirty List lived in grinding poverty.  With little formal education, they would not have qualified for work that was more rewarding or less grueling.  Their best livelihood option—one that many had been choosing for years—was to sell their physical labor.  The existence of abject poverty and large numbers of poorly educated people living in destitution is a leading risk factor for modern slavery—people desperate for opportunity are more easily exploited than those with more livelihood options.

Mid-sized estates.  Modern slavery may be more likely on mid-sized farms than smaller or larger ones.  The number of workers rescued from estates on the Dirty List ranged from six to 75.  The operations were big but not massive.  Big enough to generate significant demand for unskilled labor but not big enough to have the kinds of mechanized operations that reduce labor demand.  This observation would be consistent with similar findings in other agricultural supply chains.  The largest farms don’t just require less unskilled labor because they have some degree of mechanization, but they are also more likely to be tied into markets that require the kinds of certifications or third-party verifications that mitigate labor risk, and more likely to have built the costs of compliance with global labor standards into their business models.

Market incentives.  The NY “C” market was hovering just above $1 per pound for much of the time Repórter Brasil was conducting its research. The market can’t be blamed or modern slavery, of course.  Hundreds of thousands of other farms in Brazil—and millions more around the world—were trading coffee under similar market conditions without resorting to such practices.  The blame for these violations lies with the farmers who chose to employ workers in conditions of modern slavery, or to outsource the labor function to brokers without bothering to oversee them. But a dominant price discovery mechanism that allows prices to get that low and stay there for extended periods of time isn’t helping matters.  With prices at levels that are below cost of production for most farmers, even estate owners who want to do the right thing may find it hard to comply with the dictates of the law (and conscience).


U.S. coffee companies and consumers may not call these practices slavery, but we suspect they wouldn’t call them pretty.


<< Previous: Brazil and the “S-Word”

Next: A Little Perspective on the Scope of the Problem >>

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This post, the 500th I have contributed to the CRS Coffeelands blog dating back to 2009, is the third in an eight-part series 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.


  • Great to have this type of discussions around farm labor. Look forward to more comments and information.

    • Coffeelands says:

      Thanks, Gabriela. We are also looking forward to more discussion of these issues here at CRS, and identifying industry allies interested in working on this issue with us!

  • paul hicks says:

    all of this clearly requires a focus on legal and policy issues. but the last point on markets is also key, and the argument clear. It is only possible to have $1/pound because a critical mass of farms/estates are employing people under dismal conditions. What is the cost of producing coffee? The coffee industry has to take this point seriously – this just can’t be left to the market and local law enforcement.

  • Ed Canty says:


    I have been very busy the last few months in my new job at Cooperative Coffees. However, as I raised my head from my work long enough read these articles, I’m compelled to comment.

    First of all, I completely agree with your framing of this conversation. Even within relatively transparent supply chains, the role of labor brokers is rarely understood. From last years exposé on Mexican tomato farmers to the recent findings on shrimp workers, human trafficking through labor brokerage exists in almost any global supply chain removed enough to hide them.

    However, my reason for commenting is not to reaffirm your work. Rather I am surprised by the lack of comments from those that read the Coffeelands blog. Perhaps people are as busy with their own daily work as I have been. Possibly preparation for the holidays is taking priority and readers plan on adding to this conversation after the new year.

    More likely organizations are resisting comment until they understand the risk of this issue existing in their own supply chain. In truth, this is a global issue that absolutely exists within coffee supply chains. Brazil is known for having more robust labor laws than most coffee producing countries; inferring this issue is expanded far beyond the boarders of only Brazil.

    As an industry problem, we need to embrace it together and begin an open dialogue on how to address it. This is NOT about one roaster pointing a finger at another, as all of us have questions we should be asking. This is NOT about choosing one producer over another. Labor shortages are a known issue in most countries, forcing growers to finding workers where they can.

    This IS about finding a better solution that promotes human dignity and empowers skilled labor to address our industries many problems. I know CRS does not approach development work from a religious angle and I am not a particularly religious person myself. However, knowing the patronage your name implies and the season of year reminds me of my favorite Buckminster Fuller quote. “God is a verb, not a noun.” We should not sit on this information and feign ignorance. For this, I commend you for bring this issue to this forum. However, the silence in the comments section is painful to see.

    Happy Holidays,

    • Coffeelands says:


      Thank you for taking time during this busy season to post such a thoughtful comment.

      We have also been disappointed by the lack of discussion here around this issue. We were expecting (and hoping for) more. More comment. More critical engagement. Maybe more outrage. Certainly more readership. Just…more.

      Maybe it is the busy holiday season.

      Maybe people are waiting for the series to end to take it all in and comment on the whole body of work.

      But the most likely explanation may be this this: people just aren’t really sure what to say.

      You quoted Buckminster Fuller. We will paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut: “There is nothing intelligent you can say about a massacre.” This post doesn’t describe a massacre, but it does describe a systematic degradation of human dignity so troubling that an intelligent, thoughtful response is difficult.

      And for many readers this series is likely a startling revelation. As you will recall, we worked closely with your former colleague, the great Rick Peyser, and other dedicated coffee professionals who were leading a campaign to raise awareness within the industry around the reality of seasonal hunger in the coffeelands. That was a patient process. The message seemed to knock the wind out of the audiences that heard it. There was some denial. And there was a relentless, tenacious commitment by Rick and many of us to continue to raise the uncomfortable issue—the “inconvenient truth”—until people stopped looking away and began to engage. In the end, that process produced a pretty extraordinary collaboration at origin among companies that compete in the marketplace. But it took YEARS. The parallels between that process and the process of raising industry awareness on issues of farm labor in the coffee sector are uncanny. We have been talking about this issue here now for the better part of two years, and expect to be talking about it for many months to come before it will get the kind of traction that hunger in the coffeelands did.

      It won’t be good for traffic—readership is down since we started this series. But the issue is so central to our mission, so consistent with the commitment of the specialty coffee industry to lead on issues of environmental sustainability and social inclusion, and so resonant in a broader cultural moment of acute intolerance of the worst forms of labor abuse, that we won’t stop talking about it anytime soon.

      We are not alone, of course. The SCAA has stepped up on this issue. Its Sustainability Director is working hard to foster awareness and engagement. So is its Sustainability Council, which now has a Farmworker Committee. Ben Corey-Moran of Fair Trade USA has published this powerful article in the current issue of The Specialty Coffee Chronicle, whose theme is “Make Coffee Better.” We have written a long article that will appear in the next issue of Roast Magazine. And the SCAA will publish a white paper on farmworkers in coffee during the first half of 2016. In other words, if the conversation isn’t widely joined yet, it almost certainly will be in the coming months.

      Finally, it is important to recognize that precisely because this issue is “new” to specialty coffee—it is hardly new to agriculture—there are no “plug-and-play” solutions. That was one of the reasons for the lag time between the “revelation” of hunger in the coffeelands and actions to address it: there were ready levers to pull for industry actors who were concerned and committed to act. It is similar for this issue. There are certifications and some farmworker empowerment pilots, there are codes of conduct and third-party verifications. But we haven’t invested in farmworkers a fraction of the resources and energy we have invested in smallholders. Which means we will have to work extra hard to develop the kinds of tools, processes and systems needed to address farm labor in meaningful ways. And the first step is dialogue.

  • Kyle Freund says:

    Thanks for these. Need to share this, build the awareness, and root it out.

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