FAIRFAX, Virginia — Over 42 million people live in poverty in Brazil today. Approximately eight million are coffee workers. In 2019, Brazilian police discovered that undocumented workers were underpaid and lacked the correct safety equipment needed. Especially in the Minas Gerais state, which produces approximately 50% of Brazil’s coffee.
Brazilian Poverty and Coffee Production.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil has struggled to maintain low poverty rates. From 2019 to 2020, Brazil’s poverty rate decreased from 29% to 21%. However, that number may rise once again as temporary assistance ends.
Brazil produces 40% of the world’s coffee supply, the most in the world. In 2018, Brazil produced 69 million bags of coffee, weighing 60 kilos each. Around 8 million Brazilians work in the coffee industry. This includes undocumented workers who live in almost the same conditions as the 1.5 million African slaves forced to work on Brazilian coffee farms in the 19th century.
Brazilian Modern-Day Slavery Discovered
Since the 19th century, Brazilian coffee farm owners have always relied on cheap labor. Either from African slaves or later from Italian immigrants. Currently, some Brazilian coffee farms continue to rely on cheap labor by impoverished workers relocating mainly from the Bahia state in Brazil, enticed by fraudulent assurances that they will receive high pay and work in good conditions.
In August 2019, Brazilian officials, who accompanied the Thomson Reuters Foundation, raided two coffee plantations in Minas Gerais in search of maltreated coffee bean harvesters. They found 59 overworked, undocumented workers, including children under 13, who lacked proper safety equipment. This prompted the Thomson Reuters Foundation to launch a thorough, six-month investigation of the entire Brazilian coffee industry. The foundation discovered that slave labor occurred in the billion-dollar Brazilian coffee industry for years, despite Brazil’s efforts to eliminate modern-day slavery. The investigation also uncovered that the workers were paid approximately 49 cents per hour or less than 998 Brazilian reals per month, equivalent to $191.30 per month in the United States.
Life as an Enslaved Brazilian Coffee Harvester
When officials rescue enslaved coffee harvesters, they tend to be extremely malnourished since they are underpaid. Moreover, according to government reports, a coffee plantation in southern Brazil only provided employees with drinking water from a nearby septic tank ditch. Every day, workers expect to transport bags of coffee beans by hand, sometimes totaling 15 gallons.
Why Modern-Day Slavery in Brazil Continues
To ensure that a coffee product is not produced by forced labor, tracking the product’s progress throughout its lifecycle should be a priority. A 30% markup in price accompanies coffee that is 100% traceable due to the necessary extreme supervision. This sometimes results in consumers purchasing a forced labor-produced product to save money.
Data and public records revealed that certification organizations, such as Rainforest Alliance, falsely certified coffee from forced labor farms to be slavery-free. This indicates that popular Brazilian coffee purchasers, such as Starbucks and Nespresso, paid the 30% upcharge for unethically sourced products.
Due to the Brazilian recession in 2017, the government decided to reduce labor inspection funds, resulting in a decline in the rescue of modern-day slavery victims. In 2012, approximately 2,600 victims were rescued from modern-day slavery, compared to 1,150 victims in 2018.
The fraudulent ethically sourced certification, 30% markup in the price of slavery-free coffee and reduction in labor inspection funds means the Brazilian coffee farm modern-day slavery cycle will continue illegally. Despite efforts by the government, forced labor is arduous to track. Especially since approximately two-thirds of coffee workers in Minas Gerais work informally.
What Brazilian Coffee Investors are Doing to Prevent Further Enslavement
Coffee giants in the United States such as Starbucks and Nespresso have unknowingly purchased coffee products harvested by Brazilian exploited workers in the past 10 years. However, they have strived to eliminate slave labor practices ever since. For instance, after the Thomson Reuters Foundation raid occurred in 2019, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection conversed with labor inspectors in Minas Gerais. They decided that CBP officials have the right to block products potentially created by forced labor.
Sipping Ethically In the Future
The U.S. CBP limited the number of products made by forced labor that were allowed into the U.S. from Brazil. Still, it is in the hands of coffee consumers globally to stay educated on coffee products. It is important to understand what is made by forced labor and ensure that coffee products utilized are slavery-free. So Brazil’s coffee workers can break free from being held in impoverished captivity by the Brazilian forced labor coffee industry.
– Lauren Spiers