A Bad Buzz: Brazil, Coffee, and Human Rights Violations

The United States loves coffee. In fact, we love coffee more than any other country in the world. We import at least $4 billion in beans each year and drink around 400 million cups per day. This should matter to people who care about human rights because the coffee industry is one of the worst in terms of violations. We will focus on Brazil, because it produces ⅓ of the world’s coffee beans. Just one state – Minas Gerais – produces half of the entire country’s export. That’s 28 million sacks per year and countless lives affected.

Misled and mistreated

Brazil is broken up into states; there are 26 total. Each year, hundreds of people come from Bahia, a northeastern state, to Minas Gerais to work on coffee farms. While the recruiters (known as “gatos,’ which means “cats”) promise good wages and treatment, upon arrival workers find themselves in a much different situation.

A 2012-2013 investigation conducted by the Coffeelands Project and a Brazilian journalism collective revealed that over a dozen farms provided horrendous work conditions for their workers, who lacked access to running water, beds, or sanitation systems. Instead, waste and trash sat outside of dirt-floor houses, and all cooking had to be done over open flame. Food was scarce, forcing workers to live on just papaya and rice, which they had to find themselves on the farms. They’re often not paid what they were promised and sometimes not paid at all, so workers can’t just go out and buy food.

This meager diet is hardly enough to fuel the difficulty of the work; the day begins at 4am and extends into darkness. Basic safety equipment like gloves and goggles aren’t provided, leaving workers exposed to extremely-toxic pesticides, many of which are illegal everywhere else. This chemicals can cause symptoms like headaches, vomiting, and raised heart rates.

Why not leave? Frequently, workers are trapped. Once they arrive to their farm, they hand over their identity documents under the assumption that they’ll be registered with the Ministry of Labor and kept safe. However, workers often can’t get those papers back, and investigations revealed few were even ever registered. Many are also bound by debt, because they have to pay for lodging, equipment, and more. Their earnings aren’t enough to cover everything, so they gradually end up in the hole. This is known as debt bondage; it’s a modern form of slavery.

What’s being done?

Coffee giants like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are linked to coffee harvested through human rights violations. How? These large companies buy from Mother Parkers, a Canadian distributor. Mother Parkers buys from Cooxupe Cooperative, which in turn buys from a co-op linked to a farm that’s been blacklisted for slave labor. It can be a confusing chain, but there’s no denying the truth now. In 2016, a Danish watchdog group learned that six major companies (including Nestle, Starbucks, Dunkin ‘Donuts, and Starbucks) were unaware that some of their coffee came from farms using slave labor. Some of the coffee even bore sought-after certifications claiming to be slave-free, but raids exposed the harsh reality.

Two worker unions from Brazil recently lobbied the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development for help. This collective of 36 countries agrees to certain human rights and sustainability standards, so the workers want companies that don’t exercise close scrutiny over the supply chain to be held accountable. If the OECD accepts the complaint, action like financial compensation and more transparency in the supply chain should follow.

What can you do differently?

When you buy coffee that’s certified slave-free, it will cost more, but it’s worth it. Look for labels like “fair-trade” and “Rainforest Alliance.” These certifications help ensure workers are treated and paid fairly. The Rainforest Alliance label is also concerned with environmental sustainability. One of the best brands you can buy from is Equal Exchange. It is the world’s largest worker-owned coffee roaster and leading fair-trade brand. Their coffee comes from partners in places like Mexico, Central and South America, and Africa.

About the author

Human Rights Issues