Published: 20/12/2019

A recent study from Thomson Reuters (Picked by Slaves: Coffee crisis brews in Brazil) provides new evidence of how coffee produced under brutally exploitative conditions on farms in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais is sold at a premium price by multinationals thanks to certification schemes like Rainforest Alliance. Brazil produces some one-third of global coffee beans; Minas Gerais in turn accounts for half of this production.

The investigation uncovered debt bondage, sub-poverty wages, sub-standard housing, water and sanitation facilities and appalling health and safety conditions. “More than 300 coffee workers were found by officials in slave-like conditions nationwide in 2018, the highest in 15 years, but the true extent of slavery in the sector is unknown”, according to the report, which cites academics and activists as saying “The scale of slave labor across Minas Gerais is likely to be significant and largely unchecked.” (Brazil’s penal code defines slavery to include exhaustive working hours and degrading conditions of work in addition to debt bondage and forced labour).

The government budget to fund inspections has been slashed while coffee exports have soared; for years, the number of roving inspection units has declined. Minas Gerais, with at least 119,000 coffee plantations and hundreds of thousands of workers, the vast majority of them entirely precarious with no rights to minimum standards of employment or social protection, has only 245 inspectors.

Private certification has built a global business on the back of the state’s massive failure to ensure minimum conditions. Buyer beware: “Rainforest endorses hundreds of coffee plantations in Minas Gerais through a system of ‘group certifications’ despite auditing only a fraction of any collective’s many farms”, says the report. In a 2019 evaluation of its Brazil coffee certification program, UTZ, part of the Rainforest Alliance, reported that 98% of its certified producers were medium to large farms. According to the report, labor violations were identified by officials in 10 farms certified by Rainforest or Brazil’s Certifica Minas, which works with Syngenta.

Systemic violence underpins this system of exploitation – an element missing from the Thomson Reuters report. Trade union organizers, social and civil rights activists and even labour inspectors are murdered with impunity.

Rainforest Alliance, according to the report, is “considering a change to ensure all farms were independently audited at least once every three years.”