BATH, United Kingdom — “[Hand-picked], shipped across the world, to be crushed and ground for our pleasure,” this is the journey of a coffee bean from earth to mug. However, It is also the voyage of a far more sinister commodity. The coffee industry is known for the exploitation of developing nations and their workers, contributing to the 27.6 million people who fell victim to human trafficking or slavery in 2022. Manumit Coffee, in its mission to end coffee slavery, strives to provide an ethical alternative when household-name corporations turn a blind eye to exploitation in the coffee industry.
Coffee Slavery in Brazil
Brazil is the world’s largest producer of coffee, exporting more coffee beans than Africa and the rest of the Americas combined. However, the coffee trade in Brazil is marred by poverty-inducing wages and unsafe conditions. The Byline Times says, “Coffee farmers typically earn only 7–10% of retail prices,” but Brazilian coffee workers earn much less.
Danwatch claimed in 2016 that Brazilian coffee workers receive about $2 for picking a 60-liter sack of beans, earning laborers only 2% of retail prices. Danwatch also reports that Brazilian coffee plantations employ toxic pesticides, which are illegal in the Europe Union, “with workers complaining of difficulty breathing, skin rashes and birth defects,” the Guardian says.
Minas Gerais is a region of Southeastern Brazil that produces more than half the nation’s coffee. In 2021, authorities freed 240 slaves from forced labor-filled coffee plantations in Minas Gerais, including women and children. The number of slaves freed from coffee plantations is growing, with the authorities liberating 70% more laborers in 2021 than in 2020.
The 240 freed slaves are likely only “the tip of the iceberg,” Julie Hjerl Hansen, a Danwatch lead researcher, tells the Guardian. Likely, tens of thousands of workers in Brazil and other developing nations work in similar conditions for minuscule pay. The effect of the coffee trade on the Brazilian population is so profound that a 2004 research article by Diana Kruger noted a 37% increase in child labor and a 3% decline in school attendance in coffee-growing regions.
While most coffee bean plantations may hold up to international labor standards, it is impossible to separate ethically sourced coffee beans from the fruits of slave labor. As commingling is inevitable, large coffee corporations are also responsible for slave-made goods. For instance, Nestlé stated that it “cannot fully guarantee that it has completely removed forced labor practices or human rights abuses” from its supply chain.
In 2019, Brazilian inspectors found that coffee plantations, certified by Starbucks C.A.F.E. standards for upholding fair work conditions and reasonable pay, organized and perpetrated slave labor, thereafter selling their goods to Starbucks.
Manumit’s Work to End Coffee Slavery
Manumit means “to set free from slavery.” Esther Gibbs is the director of U.K.-based Manumit Coffee. In an Interview with Tearfund, Gibbs described Manumit’s mission: “to hire survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking to roast coffee – seeking to get them back into work through building soft and hard skills on a good wage.”
She says further, “We source our coffee through traceable and slavery-free supply chains and then we put our profits into anti-slavery projects locally and internationally. We teach them skills like coffee roasting, barista and brewing skills, and shipping and packaging.” Additionally, Manumit Coffee teaches necessary soft skills such as “confidence building, how to interact in a team and with employers, turning up to work on time, work ethic, how to deal with a panic attack at work and how to get through an 8-hour day.”
Gibbs also says that Manumit offers the following services:
- Workshops in schools and universities to raise awareness about modern slavery.
- The embrace befriending project provides survivors of human trafficking and slavery with a means to reintegrate into their new community.
- Funding for survivors to access basic resources and cover education costs.
Manumit Coffee tells the story of one such survivor of slavery, Alex. Manumit highlights Alex’s words on its website: “I used to feel very hopeless, but since becoming part of Manumit my life has taken a different direction. I feel free and started to make my dreams come true. I am very comfortable here because they have helped me build confidence and it is helping me to have a better future.” Manumit has personally employed Alex as a coffee roaster and has printed her artwork on some of the bags of coffee that Manumit sells.
Manumit Bringing Attention to Coffee Slavery
Alex is just one success story, showing how victims of forced labor can rise out of poverty, when employed under fair and decent conditions, and contribute valuable skills to the world. Manumit is leading the charge to end coffee slavery.
– David Smith