Market Reports

The persistent traces of slavery in coffee

When inspectors from Brazil’s labour ministry arrived unannounced at the Sandalus Farm, a smallish estate on the plateau of Vitoria da Conquista, a traditional coffee-growing area in the northeastern state of Bahia, they found scenes that many hoped belonged to the past. Barefoot workers were expected to deliver a dozen baskets of coffee in dusk til dawn shifts. None were given even the most basic protective gear mandated by law to guard them against the hazardous chemicals sprayed over the bushes they were handling. Waiting for them at night were lean-to shelters with no beds or mattresses. The workers had improvised cots from bricks, boards, cardboard, and matting – materials bought at their own expense. The inspectors found pieces of rotting meat in the rough accommodation as there was “no place to store or preserve food”. With no plumbing or electricity there were also no toilets. Instead, they had “a hole covered with cement for them to defecate and urinate, continuously giving off foul odours”. The reward for enduring these conditions, the workers told the government agents, was payment of 2.5 Reais (roughly US$0.60) per basket. But there were no contracts of any kind to formalise this arrangement. Legally, they did not exist. Similarly appalling conditions were found on another larger estate nearby where 29 workers were living off yellow water “visibly unfit for human consumption”. They were rescued by the inspection team. In both cases the owners were sued by authorities, both for inflicting slavery-like conditions on workers, as well as moral damages, which go to a national union fund that pays unemployment benefits to rescued workers. The Sandalus and Sitio Novo farms were among 15 estates identified on Brazil’s so-called Dirty List – an employer register naming factories, farms, and firms across all industries found to be employing workers in conditions analogous to slavery. The last Dirty List, released in 2013, led to the release of nearly 400 people who were working against their will, or under conditions tantamount to slavery. It also prompted an in-depth follow up by researchers from the Coffeelands program of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an international charity. Their report, released in April this year, along with a similar but unrelated investigation by Danish media and research centre DanWatch, prompted headlines around the world. As well as embarrassing Brazil and coffee giants Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts – who had to admit they could not be sure that coffee from similar sources had not entered their supply chains – the reports carried uncomfortable echoes of coffee’s darker past in relation to slavery. Coffee’s inexorable spread from the 16th century onwards saw it conquer much of the Arab world before becoming popular in Europe just as the European powers began to collect colonies. With the expansion of European dominions, coffee was among the cash crops that drove both empire and the slave trade. In Brazil, where slavery was abolished in 1888, coffee was one of the main crops to encourage the slash and burn agriculture of 18th and 19th centuries. Rainforests were laid waste to and replanted with coffee trees that sapped the nutrients in the soil and would soon force growers to push deeper into the interior. In Brazil, as elsewhere in other colonies of the time, slave women and children harvested the beans and sorted the seeds. Men were forced to prepare the land, plant the trees, prune them and dig irrigation ditches. These slaves were later joined by impoverished European immigrants, who worked for coffee barons to pay off debts related to their passage to Brazil. The Dutch coffee business has its roots in slavery, when they began to grow coffee in Java, Ceylon  (now Sri Lanka) and elsewhere in the East Indies from the late 17th century native populations were enslaved and forced to tend the coffee trees. In the Caribbean, indigenous populations were killed off or died of diseases introduced by Europeans who then imported African slaves to work coffee and sugar plantations. Mark Pendergrast, the author of a popular history of coffee, Uncommon Grounds, says coffee has a mixed history, inspiring revolutions but also encouraging slavery. “One of the ironies about coffee is it makes people think. It sort of creates egalitarian places – coffeehouses where people can come together – and so the French Revolution and the American Revolution were planned in coffeehouses,” he told the NPR in a recent interview. “On the other hand, that same coffee that was fuelling the French Revolution was also being produced by African slaves who had been taken to San Domingo, which we now know as Haiti.” Over the centuries, definitions of slavery have changed and been broadened to encompass a wider range of exploitative practices known as modern slavery. Forced labour, debt bondage, and human trafficking are closely related terms, although not identical in a legal sense. Most situations of slavery or human trafficking are, however, covered by the International Labour Organisation’s definition of forced labour: “Forced labour refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.” In the case of the CRS report on Brazil, the slavery-like practices focused on four main outlawed areas: forced labour, debilitating work days, degrading work conditions, and debt bondage. Debilitating workdays was taken to refer to work outdoors in punishing weather conditions, more than 10-hour days, and failure to provide protective gear to workers handling toxic agrochemicals – or in some instances charging workers for the gear. The dirt floors, pit latrines and absence of electricity and running water encountered clearly fall within the definition of degrading work conditions. Meanwhile debt bondage was also discovered among five of the 15 estates on the Dirty List. Estates were illegally using debts owed by workers to estate owners or supervisors as a means to limit their freedom and keep them from leaving the farms. There was also evidence of estates confiscating identity documents from workers. Even though the Dirty List and the subsequent reports it spawned referred to just 15 estates among Brazil’s estimated 350,000 coffee farms, it prompted global concern. Were similar practices widespread in other coffee-growing countries? The first port of call in seeking an answer was the US Department of Labour’s List of Products Produced by Forced or Child Labour. The foremost watch-list of its kind, the latest version notes 14 countries, including most of the major coffee producers such as Colombia, Kenya, and Indonesia, as having more than isolated incidences of child labour in the production of coffee. One of those 14, Ivory Coast also appears in the list of coffee-growing nations where forced labour is also a credible risk. The conclusion of the CRS in their report on Brazil was that the world’s largest coffee producer was not the exception. “Conditions analogous to slavery are likely to be present in similar proportions in all coffee-growing regions of the country,” it asserted.
Michael Sheridan, one of the report’s lead authors, says some perspective is needed before singling out the coffee industry for accusations of modern slavery. He points out debt bondage, forced labour, debilitating work days, and degrading work are present globally. “These practices are not limited to Brazil and they are not limited to coffee,” Sheridan tells Global Coffee Report. “They are symptomatic of a global food system and a global marketplace in which price-based competition dominates and incentives favour what has come to be known commonly as a race to the bottom in which countries with environmental and labour protections that are weak or weakly enforced are rewarded by price-sensitive buyers.” In fact, he says, “Brazil is the good guy” after making a sustained effort from 1995 onwards to eradicate slavery from its agricultural sector. The Dirty List simply shows the extent to which government, non-government organisations (NGO), and the private sector have gone to improve regulations, reporting on conditions, and labour inspections. As arguably the preeminent smallholder cash crop, coffee faces enormous challenges in stamping out the last remains of slavery-like labour practices. “Smallholders grow most of the world’s coffee and most of the world’s coffee growers are smallholders,” Sheridan explains. “That means that most of the world’s growers do not engage directly with roasters, but connect with final markets through a series of supply-chain intermediaries that can make tracing coffee to source a challenge.”  The development of specialty markets where traders understand the importance of traceability and supply-chain transparency, and have invested resources to be able to deliver a clearer line of sight to their customers in the marketplace, have improved the situation. But sometimes coffee is bulked multiple times before it even reaches an exporter with a strong traceability system.  “These patterns of intermediation make it hard for many companies to even identify the specific farms from which they are buying coffee,” says Sheridan, “to say nothing of understanding the labour dynamics on those farms or mounting a credible effort to identify and eradicate child labour and forced labour where it may exist.” The urgency of eradicating traces of slavery-like practices from the supply chains of rich-world importers was underlined by changes to US law in March this year. The closing of a somewhat obscure loophole in an antique piece of legislation has sent importers of everything from seafood to cocoa and coffee scrambling to examine their supply chains. The US Tariff Act of 1930 prohibited the importation of “[a]ll goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labour or/and forced labour or/and indentured labour under penal sanctions”. But a critical exception – the “consumptive demand” loophole – was made for goods that were not made or could not be found in the US. This has now closed and the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has already begun seizure and forfeiture proceedings against three companies involved in shipping a number of products including stevia and soda ash. Chandri Navarro, a partner at the Washington DC law firm Hogan Lovells, says the closure of the loophole and the aggressive follow-up by the CBP had firms across a number of sectors, including coffee, in a race to fire-proof their supply chains. In a recent talk to members of the US National Coffee Association, members were encouraged to revisit contracts with all suppliers to include specific language prohibiting forced labour, and child labour. Anyone can petition the CBP to investigate companies, Navarro warns, and if they are dealing with countries and goods on the Department of Labour’s watch lists, seizures could follow. The CBO has announced a hiring spree to beef up enforcement and has been told to report back to two US Senate committees later this year actions taken. “Petitions filed are not made public so we have no way of knowing whether an NGO an individual or a competitor has filed a petition over coffee,” says Navarro. “We have no way of knowing. We’ll only know when it happens.” GCR

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