Race to the bottom of the coffee mug

6. Aug 2014

Slavery and degrading working conditions have been prevalent in Brazilian coffee production for centuries. And because violations of working conditions have been severe even in the past decade, we set out to uncover how Brazilian coffee is produced and under what conditions.

The gable bends softly inwards where Juares Campos places his hand and leans in. It only needs the slightest push to make the wall move, which is one of the proofs that Juares’ and his wife, Joana D’Ark’s house is in a bad state. Others are the structures that are completely melanised, the tinned roof full of big holes that let the sun, or rain, through in thick beams, and the toilet neither flushes nor has a sink. “We have been complaining about it for at least a year, but the farm owner says there is nothing for him to fix”, says Joana, while briskly washing up, in what she later reveals is water from the small creek where the cows both drink, defecate and urinate as well. This is the creek, which also provides the family with their drinking water.

Dysfunctional chain of production

The problem with coffee production has its roots in the fact that some people believe that it is ok to exploit others, to increase their own gain.

Bruno Arnelli Lopes, a fiscal work auditor at the Ministry of Labour in Rio de Janeiro, explains that; “It is normal that the coffee workers are left without shoes, hats, protective gear, water etc. Particularly on the medium size farms”. The coffee workers are poor people, and need food on the table, which is why they do not ask many questions, but just get on with their work, when they have some.

Behind the article

Danwatch has been in Brazil and Etiopia for ICRT (International Consumer Research & Testing) og Forbrugerrådet Tænk.

You can read the articles based on the research-trips on this website and in various consumer magazines all over Europe.

Photos: Andreas Beck and Ida Dalgaard.

Brazil is aware of the problem with working conditions in its industries. To improve on this, the Ministry of Labour undertakes inspections on farms. At first glance a great initiative, which has helped many. But as Bruno Arnelli Lopes explains; “We try to do as many inspections as we can, but the harvest is only four months, and we are very few people to inspect a lot of farms, so we mostly inspect on farms where we are tipped about violations.” It is not optimal, and inspections on all farms would be preferable. But it is difficult work, and in Zona da Mata in Minas Gerais, for instance, they are two auditors to inspect more than 63.000 farms in 3-4 months. This means more than 500 farms in a day – an impossible task for two people.

Day labourers are mistreated

Last year, Bruno Arnelli Lopes’ unit in the Ministry of Labour inspected a farm in Bom Jardim in Rio de Janeiro state. “The 20 workers here were in dire conditions. No beds, infected drinking water and no protective gear”. He told us about schoolchildren helping in the fields as well as workers with no shoes. These are not uncommon problems, but only occur during harvest because of the increased demand for workers. The 20 workers from Bom Jardim were released, and the farmer penalised.

Workers like these are typically picked up in their town, thrown into trucks and driven off to coffee farms many kilometres away. Here  they work all day without contact to anyone. Sometimes they live at the farms, where they then end up in debt bondage, because they have to pay for lodging, food etc. Working in a coffee farm is then a type of functional slavery.

In Europe coffee is an exclusive commodity that many people enjoy in expensive cafés. But to workers such as the 20 in Bom Jardim or Juares Campos, there is no exclusivity, merely exploitation and hard work; demonstrating a dysfunctional link in the chain of production.

The Brazilian ‘Dirty list’

When a farm is caught violating workers’ rights, the owner is either fined or placed on the Brazilian Lista Suja (Dirty list, red.) – which means that they are not allowed to export, trade with anyone who exports or receive loans from neither public or private banks. “Getting on the ‘dirty list’ often means that business stops for the owner” says Bruno Arnelli Lopes from the Ministry of Labour in Rio de Janeiro. Coffee producers in Brazil receive large amounts of financial help from the state and banks, and the list thereby acts as a severe punishment, when auditors catch someone mistreating their workers.

But for the ‘dirty list’ to work, inspections on the farms is a prerequisite, and so far the coffee industry has not been as thoroughly inspected as other industries in Brazil. “We are up against big men. And people are scared”, explains Marcelo Gonçalves Campos, who audits working conditions for the Brazilian Ministry of Labour in Minas Gerais, and currently coordinates a project to fight modern slavery. Everyone continuously mentions this element of politics and old power during our stay, and it is no secret that many coffee farms are owned by politicians, policemen, judges etc.

A change of political will

Marcelo Gonçalves Campos from the Ministry of Labour, is aware of the difficulties in the coffee industry; “I am ashamed of how it has been, but there has not been political will to go into coffee production because of history and powerful owners within this industry”, he continues. This is about to change. A new exclusively selected team of 8 auditors, with Marcelo Gonçalves Campos in the lead, will start inspecting coffee farms.

Previously the biggest problems in the coffee industry have been with the day labourers and their working conditions and debt bondage as in Bom Jardim last year. But according to Marcelo Gonçalves Campos the problem is changing.

Cunning farmowners

Juares Campos is an example of this new problem. Usually coffee workers are hired daily or seasonally in agriculture in Brazil. In this situation it is the owner’s responsibility to supply housing, protective gear, toilet facilities, clean water etc. “But for the last ten years, the owners have become smarter”, says Marcelo Gonçalves Campos, from the Ministry of Labour in Minas Gerais.

Instead of offering the workers daily work, they offer a ‘partnership contract’, which means that on paper the farmer gets fifty percent of the farm to cultivate, and thereby also fifty percent of the profits. Seemingly a great deal for poor producers, and the reason why Juares Campos has this kind of contract. And it is legal, which means that the Ministry of Labour has not gone into the farms to check the actual conditions. “The farm owners have found a way to go around the Ministry’s fiscal audits on working conditions”, Marcelo Gonçalves Campos explains.

The issue is that these partnerships are not partnerships. In reality all the work is left to the poor farmer, while the owner of the land seems to collect all profit. For it to be a legal partnership both parts have to work in the field – which rarely happens according to Dalberto Luiz Gomes, Director of CRESOL, a workers union in Manhuaçu, a Brazilian coffee stronghold. In Juares Campos’ fields he does the hard work, while the owner makes promises he never keeps.
The unions are all aware of the problem with partnerships, and consider the contracts invalid, as Marco Antônio Domingos, from the union Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Rurais de Manhuaçu: “This is forgery. The partnership contracts are only made to show the Ministry of Labour, when they do inspections. In reality the workers are still paid daily and work as daily labour”.

On the farm Juares Campos feels badly treated: “The owner said, I could have all the extra crop, I grow on my land. But when I harvest, he comes and demands half” he explains, and throws a glance at his coffee trees and the little corn and bean plants in the middle.

Placing rights and duties

At the Ministry of Labour, Marcelo Gonçalves Campos says that another problem with this contract is that the owner legally disclaims all forms of responsibility for the farmer. “We have not previously been aware of the issues that this implies for the worker. Actually this contract just places the problem further down the chain of production”, he explains. This means that the farmer has none of the benefits of being employed such as unemployment insurance, food, or clean drinking water. And this happens, most often without the worker knowing about it. “These are simple people with no education. They just worry about money and their next meal”, says Dalberto Luiz Gomes, president in the workers union in Manhuaçu.

Supply of workers hardens conditions

During coffee harvest many people migrate to the coffee state Minas Gerais in Brazil. According to Ricardo Rezende Figueira, professor in Human Rights and an expert on slavery in Brazil, the workers are typically unemployed and seasonal workers, who pick the industry with most work and highest pay, which in turn makes them both vulnerable and disposable. Coffee picking qualifies for all.

“I do it for the money, otherwise I would do something else” sounds the echo from several coffee workers we spoke to in Minas Gerais. “If I work hard, all day everyday during harvest, I can make 3000 Reais (940€) in a month” says Romerito Perreira, a  day labourer. And in relation to the 740 Reais (232€) minimum wage or even less in other industries, the income is too good to refuse. “If I ask for rights or a contract, I will not be hired” he continues, “There are many men who will do the job in my place, so I have to take what I am offered”.
He explains that he is paid daily per bag of coffee he picks, he is not offered a contract, neither does he have access to water, food, protective gear or shade during the working day.

A small hope for change

The new inspections that Marcelo Gonçalves Campos from the Ministry of Labour will start this year will focus on partnership contracts. Developments which may lead to a much needed change, as the majority of illegal and repressive acts are made in these partnership agreements.

Back at the coffee farm Juares Campo hopes that his complaints to the Union will lead to improvements. And hopefully the new inspections beginning in May, will create better conditions for the workers, but until this happens, he has to work hard. For now, he has no more time to talk, he has to get back to work to cultivate both his and the owner’s trees. He is working both, because the owner has not given him pesticides, as he should have. Therefore Juares Campo’s trees are not growing as well as the owner’s, which in turn means that Juares will have to pick the coffee on the whole farm to survive.