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Review: Danwatch exposé on slavery in Brazilian coffee

2016-03-07 Comments

Last week, the Danish human rights organization Danwatch released this hard-hitting exposé on modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector.  Rather than summarize its key findings, we suggest anyone interested in farm labor, the future of coffee supply, or the evolving conversation on coffee sustainability should read it in its entirety.  Instead, we offer something closer to a two-part review. Today, we focus on where the Danwatch report hit home. Tomorrow, where it left us wanting more.




We were struck by the quality of the reporting behind this work. The fieldwork is thorough, the number and range of sources impressive, and the writing, in parts, powerful.  In one passage, the author, Julie Hjerl, delivers a vivid description of a family divided by migration, wrecked by debt and paralyzed by desperation.

The author introduces us to a woman called Dorimar whose husband and son have migrated to work on a far-flung coffee estate that lies (mostly) beyond the reach of a cell-phone signal.  Dorimar is doing her best to raise their other children, but she is falling deeper into debt as she waits for money from her husband—money that never comes.  The walls seem to be caving in and the woman is giving herself over to resignation.  She tells the author, memorably, “God will help us.”

In general, we find the report to be effective in showing what conditions analogous to slavery look like up close, and at its best in conveying what it feels like to the people who are caught up in it.

(NB: Not everyone was as impressed as we were at how Danwatch sourced its report.  Brazil’s Conselho Nacional do Café and the National Coffee Commission of the National Agriculture and Livestock Association (CNA) published this joint public comment in which they complain that Danwatch did not incorporate the perspectives of the CNA or other Brazilian coffee industry leaders into its report.)


Big brands not immune, codes of conduct no guarantee

Danwatch generates incontrovertible evidence that the supply chain of at least one of the world’s leading coffee brands is tainted by what Brazil calls modern slavery, while effectively challenging the idea that corporate codes of conduct alone are sufficient to eliminate the worst forms of labor abuse from coffee supply chains.  That is no small contribution.


Certs are associated with better labor practices

While Danwatch itself doesn’t say that labor conditions on farms certified under leading voluntary sustainability standards are better than those on farms that aren’t, it does attribute a similar conclusion to one of its sources. It cites concrete examples of workers well-served by certified estates, or better-served by certified estates than non-certified ones. 4C, UTZ, Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade merit special mention by Danwatch.


By the Numbers: 30-40-50-60

Danwatch delivers a series of impactful data points that can stand alone, but whose real value lies in the way they illuminate deeper issues related to farm labor.


30: (Nearly) 30 Percent of Workers Harvesting Coffee in Brazil are Migrants. 

According to Danwatch, roughly one in three farmworkers harvesting Brazil’s coffee does so in a place different from their community of origin.  This is a cause for serious concern, as migration is a leading risk factor for both human trafficking and modern slavery.  And Danwatch does a good job explaining one of the key links between migration on the one hand and trafficking and slavery on the other: unethical labor recruitment.  The report carefully documents the reliance of the coffee industry on labor recruiters, called gatos in Brazil, and shows how unethical recruitment is so closely tied to trafficking, debt bondage and modern slavery.


40: 40-50 Percent of Workers in Brazil’s Coffee Fields Do Not Have Contracts.

As much as one-half of all farm labor in Brazil’s coffee sector works without contracts, which means they go without the benefits that come with them, most importantly, health care. Sure, informal and flexible labor arrangements are ascendant in today’s sprawling, outsourced, sub-contracted, just-in-time supply chains. But for a sector whose work is as hazardous as agriculture’s—the ILO characterizes it as the single most dangerous sector in the global economy from a workplace health and safety perspective—so many workers going without basic benefits is a source of real concern.


50: Only 50 Percent of All Coffee Farms Alleged to be Employing Workers in Conditions Analogous to Slavery are Ever Inspected.

Danwatch attributes this estimate to Luiz Machado of the Brazil office of the International Labor Organization—an unimpeachable source.  Luiz goes on to estimate that the number of workers rescued from conditions analogous to slavery would be two to three times higher if Brazil had enough capacity to investigate all the credible allegations its authorities receive.  In other words, whatever the official data may say about the prevalence of modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector, they likely underreport the true scope of the problem.


60: 60 Thousand Children Under 14 Worked in the Agriculture Sector in Minas Gerais in 2013.

We were stunned by the scope of the child labor problem reported by Danwatch (and impressed by the precision with which it did so): 60,000 children under 14 working in agriculture in 2013 and 116,000 children aged 5-17 in Minas Gerais alone. The nationwide figures for 2013 were 464,000 children under 14 and nearly ONE MILLION children aged 5-17. What we found most extraordinary about these numbers is that as recently as 2003, the data were almost twice as bad. A comparison of the data from 2003 and 2013 is both a testament to the remarkable progress that Brazil has made in reducing the incidence of child labor in agriculture, and a sobering reminder of how much work remains to be done.


Is this as good as it gets?

Ultimately, the Danwatch report is a frontal challenge to the coffee industry—a challenge to improve its performance where farm labor is concerned. There are tens of millions of vulnerable men, women and children on whose farm work the industry depends, but by whom the industry is not necessarily doing well.

Late in the report, Danwatch quotes a response it received from one coffee company that begins, by way of explanation, “It is a long and complex supply chain.”

Danwatch, it seems, is asking the industry: is this as good as it gets? Are certifications, corporate codes of conduct, traceability systems, farm ID programs, etc. all we can hope for? Must we accept that even the most powerful global brands can’t afford to do more for farmworkers? Are we resigned to the idea that the labor conditions Danwatch describes are natural or inevitable in supply chains as “long and complex” as the ones we have built for coffee?  The honest answer to all these questions may be “yes.” But that doesn’t mean it is a satisfying answer.


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