You may be drinking coffee grown under slavery-like, life-threatening conditions

10. Mar 2016

Brazil’s coffee industry has serious problems with working conditions that are analogous to slavery, life- threatening pesticides and scarce protective equipment. Danwatch has confronted the world’s largest coffee companies with the facts of these violations. Jacobs Douwe Egberts admits that it is possible that coffee from plantations with poor labour conditions ended up in their products, and coffee giant Nestlé acknowledges having purchased coffee from two plantations where authorities freed workers from conditions analogous to slavery in 2015.

Debt bondage, child labour, deadly pesticides, a lack of protective equipment, and workers without contracts. Danwatch has been on assignment in Brazil and can prove that coffee workers in the world’s largest coffee-growing nation work under conditions that contravene both Brazilian law and international conventions.

Danwatch has confronted some of the world’s largest coffee companies with the facts surrounding these illegal working conditions. Two coffee giants admit that coffee from plantations where working conditions resembled slavery according to the Brazilian authorities may have ended up in their supply chains.  

This means that when you buy coffee in the supermarket, you risk taking home beans that were picked by people whose accommodations lack access to clean drinking water, or by workers who are caught in a debt spiral that makes it practically impossible for them to leave the coffee plantation.  

Conditions analogous to slavery

Danwatch accompanied the Brazilian authorities on an inspection and was able to trace the sale of coffee from some of the other plantations where the authorities has characterised conditions as analogous to slavery.

Read reporting from the inspection Danwatch participated in where seventeen men, women and children were freed from slavery-like conditions.

Danwatch can therefore document that coffee from plantations with slavery-like conditions was purchased and resold by middlemen who supply the world’s largest coffee companies. 

Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts corporations together account for about 40 % of the global coffee market. Their brands include Nescafé, Nespresso, Dolce Gusto, Taster’s Choice, Coffee Mate, Gevalia, Senseo, Jacobs, Maxwell House and Tassimo. Both companies admit that coffee from plantations where working conditions resembled slavery may have ended up in their products. Nestlé also admits to having purchased coffee from two plantations where the Brazilian authorities freed workers from conditions analogous to slavery in July 2015.

Nestlé and JDE's ethical guidelines

The world’s two largest coffee companies, Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts, both have ethical guidelines with which their suppliers are obliged to comply. Both sets of guidelines require the protection of human rights and reject the use of both child labour and forced labour. Suppliers must also ensure proper working conditions, in which regulations regarding working hours are respected, and workers do not receive less than the minimum wage. Nestlé’s guidelines also specifically require that workers have access to clean drinking water and that the supplier ensure a safe and healthy working environment.–integrity/supplier_code_of_conduct_july2015.pdf

Both Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts have adopted codes of conduct in which they require suppliers to adhere to a variety of international human rights conventions and to core conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

Following Danwatch’s investigation, both companies acknowledge that there is a need to do more to resolve the labour issues that affect Brazilian coffee cultivation.

“We are determined to tackle this complex problem in close collaboration with our suppliers, whom we have contacted”, Nestlé said in a written statement.

Jacobs Douwe Egberts stated that in the wake of Danwatch’s enquiries it had been in touch with all its suppliers to ask them to explain what steps they are taking to ensure that they do not purchase coffee from plantations with slavery-like working conditions.

– Read Nestlé’s and JDE’s reactions, and get the whole story of the coffee’s journey from the plantations with slavery-like conditions onto the world coffee market.

Brud på internationale konventioner

ILO: The right to a safe and healthy working environment
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has formulated in Convention 155 a series of minimum health and safety requirements for workplaces. The convention specifically mentions the obligation of the employer to ensure that chemicals like pesticides do not pose a health risk to employees by, for example, making the necessary safety equipment available. Both Denmark and Brazil have ratified this convention.,

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
According to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 32, children have the right “to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” Both Brazil and Denmark have ratified this convention.

The ILO’s conventions on child labour
The International Labour Organization’s Conventions 138 and 182 on child labour declare that children ought not to work until they are beyond the age of compulsory schooling. Furthermore, children may not do work that can harm their health or development, nor may they be subjected to debt bondage or to practices similar to slavery. Both Denmark and Brazil have ratified these conventions.

Brazilian Law

Conditions analogous to slavery
It is illegal to subject a person to conditions analogous to slavery, according to Article 149 of the Brazilian criminal code. This includes subjecting a person to forced labour, subjecting a person to degrading working conditions, and restricting a person’s freedom of movement because of debt to an employer or agent.

Child labour
It is illegal for children under 16 years old to work on coffee plantations, although children between 16 and 18 years old may do so as long as it does not interfere with their schooling. See the Brazilian labour code (CLT, Article 403):

Pesticides and protective equipment
According to a regulation by the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment, employers are responsible for providing workers with protective equipment that corresponds to the level of risk to which the employee is exposed. The employer is also responsible for ensuring that the protective equipment is properly cleaned and in good working order before being used again; for prohibiting workers from applying pesticides while wearing their own clothes; and for educating workers about the correct handling of pesticides.óxicos,_Adjuvantes_e_Produtos_Afins__

It is illegal for both permanent and temporary employees to work without a formal contract in their official employment document, the Carteira de Trabalho, according to the Brazilian labour code, known as the CLT. (

Applying deadly pesticides

Aside from the problem of slavery-like working conditions, the most serious problem for coffee workers on Brazilian plantations is that it is legal to spray the coffee with pesticides that cause illness and are potentially lethal – and that are forbidden in the EU.

Some of the pesticides are so toxic that merely getting them on your skin can kill you.  Nevertheless, many workers spray the coffee bushes with pesticides without using the protective equipment that is required by law.

Brazilian coffee may be sprayed with deadly pesticides that are illegal in both Denmark and the EU. Photo: Maurilo Clareto Costa.

Santo Antonio do Amparo, MG - 10/07/2015_DanWatch - Samambaia Farm, certified by Rainforest Alliance. Photo: Lilo Clareto/DanWatch

“These chemicals are outlawed in Denmark and the EU because they are extremely toxic and can cause serious acute and long-term health problems”, says Erik Jørs, a senior consultant on the Clinic of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University Hospital and the University of Southern Denmark in Odense.

Erik Jørs has studied the use of pesticides in developing countries for many years, and explains that researchers suspect that the substances damage reproductive systems and cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms such as coordination problems and trembling hands.

Danwatch has interviewed Brazilian coffee workers who have applied pesticides without sufficient protective equipment, and who today complain of hands that won’t obey them and feet that feel as though they are asleep.

Watch video of coffee worker Francisco Paulo Pereira, who has applied pesticides on a Brazilian coffee plantation without protective equipment.

Read the story of coffee picker Ronaldo Vicente Antonio. He applied pesticides for years without sufficient protective equipment. Today he has trouble controlling his hands, and can’t button his own shirt. 

Read more about the potentially lethal pesticides that are legal for use on Brazilian coffee plantations.

Brazil is the world’s largest source of coffee

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of coffee. In 2014, Brazil exported 2,185,200 tonnes of coffee in all. This accounts for just under 32 % of the worldwide total of 6,833,640 tonnes that year, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO).


Children pick coffee in Brazil

Danwatch’s investigation also shows that child labour is still a problem on Brazilian coffee plantations. At an inspection observed by Danwatch in July 2015, two boys aged 14 and 15 were found to have been picking coffee and freed from slavery-like working conditions.

Brazilian authorities lack statistics showing how many children work on coffee plantations, but in Minas Gerais, Brazil’s largest coffee-producing state, 116,000 children aged 5-17 years old worked in agriculture in 2013. Of these, 60,000 were under 14 years old, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), a government agency.

Read more about the problem of child labour in Brazilian coffee cultivation.

In addition to the serious issues of child labour, deadly pesticides and slavery-like working conditions, Brazil’s coffee industry is beset by a number of other problems. Brazilian labour organisations estimate that as many as half of all coffee workers work without contracts, and mention other challenges, such as underpayment and serious workplace injuries, as well.

How Danwatch uncovered the conditions of Brazilian coffee workers

– Danwatch travelled to Brazil’s largest coffee-producing state, Minas Gerais, where half of Brazil’s coffee is grown. We visited coffee plantations, interviewed coffee workers, trade unions, experts and local authorities.

– Danwatch accompanied the police and the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment on an inspection of a Brazilian coffee plantation where seventeen men, women and children were found to be victims of human trafficking and were freed from conditions analogous to slavery. Two children, ages 14 and 15, had also worked picking coffee on the plantation.

– We obtained access to more than fifteen confidential reports from the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment describing the liberation of workers on other coffee plantations from slavery-like conditions.

–Danwatch obtained documents from legal proceedings, clippings from the publications of coffee cooperatives, export records, etc., that show how coffee from plantations on which slavery-like conditions were found was sold to international coffee exporters.

–Danwatch sent surveys to Brazilian coffee cooperatives, international coffee exporters, as well as Danish and international coffee companies and brands to document where the coffee from the plantations with slavery-like conditions ended up.

– Danwatch has therefore been able to trace the coffee’s path step by step, from the plantations where authorities freed workers from conditions analogous to slavery, to cooperatives, middlemen, and onward in the international coffee market.

– Danwatch has examined the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture’s database of pesticides approved for coffee cultivation and researched how their active ingredients are classified by the EU.

– Danwatch can therefore confirm that many of the pesticides that are approved for use on Brazilian coffee plantations are classified as acutely toxic and are prohibited in the EU.

– Danwatch also obtained access to a database kept by the authorities in the coffee state of Minas Gerais that tracks the sale of pesticides, and can document that tonnes of dangerous pesticides were sold in the three areas of Minas Gerais where the majority of coffee plantations are located.

– Danwatch has interviewed experts, trade unions and coffee workers, all of whom confirmed that many coffee workers apply pesticides without protective equipment.

– Danwatch has interviewed workers who applied pesticides either entirely without protective equipment, or with inadequate equipment, and who are today seriously ill.  

InvestigationBitter kaffe

Danwatch har besøgt Brasiliens største kaffeproducerende stat, Minas Gerais, hvor halvdelen af Brasiliens kaffe bliver dyrket. Vi har besøgt kaffeplantager, interviewet kaffearbejdere, fagforeninger, eksperter og lokale myndigheder.

Danwatch har været med politiet og det brasilianske beskæftigelsesministerium på inspektion på en brasiliansk kaffeplantage, hvor 17 mænd, kvinder og børn, som var ofre for menneskehandel, blev befriet fra slavelignende forhold. To børn på henholdsvis 14 og 15 år havde arbejdet med at plukke kaffe på plantagen.


Brazilian coffee is sprayed with deadly pesticides

In Brazil, coffee may be sprayed with pesticides that are illegal in the EU because they are acutely toxic and cause disease. Many workers apply pesticides without sufficient protective equipment, and pesticide poisoning is widespread. Even the drinking water contains traces of these dangerous pesticides.

Coffe workers must sign blank documents

40-50 percent of coffee workers in Brazil are working without a formal contract giving them the right to pension and sick leave. Hear coffee worker Elisabete Vitor da Costa explain how she was forced to sign blank documents instead of an official contract during the coffee harvest in 2014.