Contemporary slavery persists on Brazilian coffee farms, study finds

The report “Plagues on farmland” reveals that production chain certificates do not guarantee an end to human rights violations

Certificação não garante lavouras livre de trabalho escravo, aponta organizações. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA / AFP) Certificação não garante lavouras livre de trabalho escravo, aponta organizações. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)

Contemporary slavery on coffee farms is not a thing of the past. Despite certificates and audits, the violation of the rights of agricultural laborers in coffee farming persists in Brazil. This is the conclusion of the study “Plagues on farmland”, prepared by Conectas in partnership with the Dutch organization SOMO. The report will be released in Brazil this Friday, January 26, as part of the National Day to Combat Slave Labor (January 28). Click here to download the full report. 

The report shows the persistence of modern slavery and the need for significant measures to curb forced labor in coffee supply chains. According to Brazil’s Labor Inspection Information and Statistics Panel, 3,700 workers were found working in conditions akin to slavery between 1996 and 2023 on coffee plantations across the country. In October 2023, the Slave Labor Dirty List contained the names of 39 coffee producers. 

The report provides evidence of the weakness of industry self-regulation, such as flaws in external audits and certification schemes, which do not consistently and effectively identify the risks to human rights and harm prevention. On the contrary: they end up providing false guarantees of compliance, while at the same time preventing the necessary investigation and interventions.

Dozens of recurring violations are documented in the study, such as the absence of employment contracts, payment irregularities, inadequate hygiene facilities and failure to provide drinking water and meals. “There was no fridge, television, closet or table. We had to ‘build’ our own bed, and it was very cold in the house,” said one of the workers rescued from a farm. As a rule, nearly all the accounts mention the lack of provision of personal protective equipment by the employer, an essential and mandatory item for this work.  

In August 2022, for example, 20 workers – including a 15-year-old girl and three boys under 18 – were rescued from a farm in the supply chain of Nestlé, where they did not receive regular wages and had to use their own personal protection items. “The water was bad, but we needed to drink. It was dirty, yellow water,” said one of the victims. Surprisingly, the farm had an international sustainability certification from the Rainforest Alliance. 

“Legislation needs to be passed that addresses forced labor in supply chains and that requires strict alignment with the Guidelines of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) and other international standards,” said Júlia Mello Neiva, director of strengthening the human rights movement at Conectas.

“A law banning the sale of products made with forced labor, for example, is one of the possible paths identified in the report, as well as greater guarantees of reparations for affected workers and the identification and disclosure of all those involved in the production process,” said Neiva. 

Complaint filed in body linked to OECD

Victims of modern slavery seek reparations through voluntary complaint mechanisms, such as the National Contact Points (NCPs) of the OECD Guidelines. In August 2018, Conectas and Adere-MG (Rural Workers Alliance of the State of Minas Gerais) filed a complaint to the Brazilian NCP of violations involving modern-day slavery on coffee farms in southern Minas Gerais, which were part of the supply chain of Nestlé.

The extrajudicial complaint was based on data from the Dutch organization Danwatch and the local NGO Repórter Brasil, which identified that the multinational company purchased coffee from farms where the beans were harvested by people in conditions akin to slavery.

Following negotiations between Conectas, Adere-MG and Nestlé, the NCP released a report, in October 2023, with tentative recommendations for the company to eradicate human rights violations in its production chain.  Read more details about the case at this link.

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