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CRS Policy Brief: Slave labor in Brazilian coffee. (And what we can do about it.)

2016-04-13 Comments

When we learned in the summer of 2013 that inspectors from Brazil’s Ministry of Labor found evidence that 15 coffee farms had employed workers under what the country calls “conditions analogous to slavery,” we were shocked.  The revelation raised lots of questions: What does “slavery” mean in Brazil in 2013?  How widespread is the practice in the coffee sector?  What does it look like?  And, perhaps most importantly, what can be done to address it?

For answers to those questions, we turned to Repórter Brasil, a longtime CRS partner and a leader in Brazil’s campaign to eradicate modern slavery.  Today, we present the answers to those questions during Re:co Atlanta, and together with Repórter Brasil, we publish answers to those questions in this policy brief. It includes recommendations of what policymakers, coffee industry leaders and coffee consumers in Brazil and the United States can do to help eradicate modern slavery from the coffee sector, starting in Brazil.

The good news is that the systems that made this information available to us—Brazil’s progressive laws, aggressive enforcement and deep commitment to transparency—have created the conditions to eradicate slave labor entirely from the world’s most important coffee-growing country.  What will it take?

For policymakers in Brazil, it means earmarking more funds for coffee-sector monitoring and creating a special forum at the Ministry of Agriculture to support improved performance on labor issues.  For their counterparts in the United States, it means continued allocation of funds for programs to fight human trafficking and slavery and passage of the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act, for starters.

For coffee companies in Brazil, it means embracing the terms of the National Pact to Eradicate Slave Labor and joining InPACTO, a creative platform for ongoing private-sector engagement to rid Brazil’s supply chains of slave labor.   For coffee companies in the United States, it means encouraging your Brazilian trading partners to join InPACTO and accompanying them as they make a public commitment to eliminate slave labor from coffee supply chains.

And for coffee consumers in both countries, it means encouraging your elected officials and favorite coffee companies to adopt the measures recommended here.

It won’t be easy.  But thanks to more than 20 years of relentless innovation by leaders in Brazil’s public, private and non-profit sectors, the path to total eradication of slave labor may be shorter there than anywhere else in the world.


Download the CRS Coffeelands Program Policy Brief Farmworker Protections and Labor Conditions in Brazil’s Coffee Sector


  • Jack Mackay says:

    It disturbs, saddens, angers, and disgusts me to know that slave labor is being used on Brazilian coffee plantations. I will immedi-
    ately stop purchasing Brazilian coffee and all products which contain it. I will also spread this information among my friends and acquaintances who are of like mind and heart.

    • Coffeelands says:

      Thank you for your comment, Jack, and for your indignation.

      We appreciate the impulse behind your pledge to boycott Brazilian coffee and related products. And yet, this response is precisely the OPPOSITE of what we had hoped for. One that we believe sends the WRONG message. And one that is NOT likely to contribute to progress on this issue.


      Because Brazil isn’t the only country where these kinds of practices are present in the coffee sector. Brazil may be the only country that calls them modern slavery, but sadly, similar practices have been observed in the coffee sectors of other countries.

      What makes Brazil unique is that it marries strong protections of workers with a commitment to tell the world about employers—including but not limited to coffee growers—who violate those protections. We would never have even known about the small number of cases of modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector without that commitment. The approach you propose would punish Brazil for telling the truth, creating an incentives for Brazil to avoid truth-telling in the future. And it would send a signal to other coffee growing countries that unpleasant truths are best avoided—it would encourage them NOT to follow Brazil’s example at a time when we are holding up Brazil’s dual commitments to worker justice and transparency as a model for emulation in coffee-growing countries around the world.

      A “zero tolerance” policy for modern slavery may resonate in the marketplace among consumers, but it does little to change conditions on the ground at origin among suppliers. In other industries where labor concerns have been at the forefront of responsible and sustainable sourcing efforts for years, like the garment industry, REMEDIATING problematic relationships—not terminating them—has emerged as a standard good practice. That happened partly because the textile sector understands what the coffee sector still doesn’t—that price-based competition exerts pressures on labor that are structural. We can’t outrun those pressures by shifting our purchases from one country to another. If your favorite coffee company acted on the basis of your recommendation and sought to shift its Brazil purchases elsewhere, it would almost certainly find similar labor practices there. We have to address them within the context of our supply chains. And we can’t do that if we aren’t actively engaged as consumers.

      Based on our experience in the coffee sector over the past 12 years, the problem is not that labor practices are worse in Brazil than in other countries. It is that other countries are less forthcoming than Brazil about the worst labor abuses discovered in their coffee sectors. And that comparatively few coffee companies have engaged deeply enough on labor issues to understand what labor practices look like in their supply chains.

      If we had hoped for anything from consumers on the basis of the disclosures in this Policy Brief, it is that they would encourage their favorite coffee companies to dig deeper on labor issues in their supply chains, starting—but not ending—in Brazil.

  • Heather says:

    I am not a coffee drinker–I prefer tea–but I will pass this email on to friends.

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