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Work undertaken by Danwatch claims to have uncovered instances of slave labour in the supply chain of some of the world’s largest and best known coffee companies, including Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts, allegations that have been rejected by the Brazilian Coffee Exporters Council


Human rights abuses are ‘rampant’ in the Brazilian coffee sector, according to Danwatch, an independent media and research centre that publishes investigative journalism focusing on CSR, human rights, the environment and conflict areas in a global perspective. In a statement about its report, ‘Bitter Coffee’, Danwatch said Brazil’s coffee industry has “serious problems with working conditions that are analogous to slavery”, with workers forced to use life- threatening pesticides and work with little or no protective equipment.

Danwatch said Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE) admitted it is possible that coffee from plantations with poor labour conditions ended up in their products; Nestlé acknowledges having purchased coffee from two plantations where authorities freed workers from conditions analogous to slavery in 2015.

Danwatch said it had also identified debt bondage and child labour in the coffee supply chain in Brazil, along with workers without contracts. It accompanied 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.

“Danwatch can document that coffee from plantations with slavery-like conditions was purchased and resold by middlemen who supply the world’s largest coffee companies,” it said. Nestlé and JDE together account for about 40 per cent of the global coffee market. Their brands include Nescafé, Nespresso, Dolce Gusto, Taster’s Choice, Coffee Mate, Gevalia, Senseo, Jacobs, Maxwell House and Tassimo. Nestlé and JDE purchase Brazilian coffee via exporters without knowing the names of all the plantations that grow it. This makes it hard for companies to ensure that they are not buying coffee that has been grown under conditions analogous to slavery.

Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts have both 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. However, 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. JDE 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. In a written communication to Danwatch, JDE admitted that the company cannot guarantee that their products are free from coffee picked under slavery-like conditions. “Due to the nature of how coffee is traded, we cannot guarantee that there are no labour-related issues on each and every farm in Brazil from which coffee is sold to co-operatives, exporters, traders, and eventually to us,” it said.


Contradictory statements


Danwatch also asked Nestlé if the firm can guarantee that coffee from plantations that have been on the “dirty list” because of slavery-like working conditions has not ended up in products sold by Nestlé. At first, Nestlé answered “Yes” to this question. However, Nestlé sells some of its coffee to McDonald’s. After questioning from Danwatch, McDonald’s asked Nestlé to verify that the plantations with conditions analogous to slavery are not in their supply chain. In its answer to McDonald’s, obtained by Danwatch, Nestlé said: “Nestlé does not purchase coffee from ‘blacklisted’ plantations, but produce from these farms sold to sub-suppliers could form part of our supply chain.”

“On the one hand, Nestlé guarantees that coffee from plantations that have been on the ‘dirty list’ has not ended up in Nestlé products, but on the other hand, it tells McDonald’s that this may indeed be the case,” said Danwatch. When asked why it made these conflicting statements, Nestlé did not answer directly, telling Danwatch, “It is probably just a question of timing.”


Who supplied what?


The investigation carried out by Danwatch has also documented that one of Nestlé’s own suppliers does not know whether its shipments contained coffee from one specific plantation on the dirty list. Danwatch asked how this fact conforms to its original guarantee that no beans from listed plantations have ended up in Nestlé’s coffee. Once again, Nestlé did not answer directly, writing instead: “On the basis of this survey, we acknowledge that there remains more to do to address labour issues in Brazil’s coffee supply chain and are grateful to Danwatch for drawing these matters to our attention.”

Other large international players in the coffee market, such as Starbucks, Illy, Mother Parkers, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, have confirmed to Danwatch that they have purchased coffee via co-operatives and/or middlemen that have done business with Brazilian plantations where authorities have liberated workers from slavery-like conditions.

Starbucks and Illy confirmed to Danwatch that they also purchase coffee from Cooxupé. However, both said that they know the names of each individual plantation from which they acquire coffee via their middlemen. On that basis, the two companies said they could guarantee that coffee from the plantations named by Danwatch had not ended up in their products. Illy cited the problem of slavery-like conditions on Brazilian coffee plantations as one of the reasons it has committed to buying coffee only from farmers the company knows and visits regularly.

Nestlé’s agronomists visited Fazenda Lagoa in August 2015 and Fazenda da Pedra in August 2014, but according to Nestlé, these visits “did not reveal any misconduct”. Danwatch asked Nestlé how it could be that its agents did not observe the problems noted by the inspectors: the workers’ lack of contracts, the withholding of employees’ work documents, the lack of protective equipment, the lack of doors in employees’ lodgings, and the lack of clean drinking water. Nestlé responded: “Since the harvest season was already over, temporary workers were not present and houses were empty. Moreover, our August 2015 visit to the Fazenda da Lagoa farm did not reveal any evidence of misconduct as the farmer is very likely to have already taken corrective action to address the issues brought to light by the local authorities in their audit earlier in the year.”


Volcafe linked to Cocarive


Coffee from the two plantations where inspectors found conditions analogous to slavery in 2015 may also have been purchased by other brands. The coffee co-operative Cocarive told Danwatch that it had sold coffee from the plantations in question until the farms were inspected by the Ministry of Labour and Employment. Cocarive has now suspended both plantations.

Cocarive’s clients include the coffee exporter Volcafe. Volcafe confirmed this, acknowledging that it cannot guarantee that it did not resell coffee from Fazenda Lagoa and Fazenda da Pedra, and assured Danwatch that it will begin an internal investigation based on Danwatch’s inquiries.

Danwatch’s research shows that Volcafe supplies coffee to JDE. It therefore asked JDE whether it can guarantee that no coffee from Fazenda Lagoa or Fazenda da Pedra made it into the products sold by JDE and its brands. JDE did not answer this question, instead stating that, “it is a long and complex supply chain, with an estimated 260,000 farmers and, despite our best efforts, it is possible that coffee from coffee farms in Brazil with poor labour conditions has found its way into our supply chain.”


Placed on the dirty list


In 2014, Brazilian coffee plantation owner Eduardo Barbosa de Mello was placed on the dirty list for violating Article 149 of the Brazilian criminal code, which states that it is illegal to subject persons to conditions that resemble slavery. Until December 2014, owners of coffee plantations at which the Brazilian authorities found conditions analogous to slavery were placed on a ‘dirty list’, called the ‘lista suja’ published by the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment. In December 2014, the dirty list was temporarily removed from the website of the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment because an organisation representing the Brazilian construction industry (Associação Brasileira de Incorporadoras Imobiliárias) sued for its removal in the Supreme Court of Brazil. As long as the suit is in progress – which could take years – the list will not be published on the website of the Ministry of Labour and Employment. Nevertheless, an alternative dirty list, based on exactly the same information about the labour ministry’s inspections, is still published by the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour and Repórter Brasil, a Brazilian NGO. If after two years, a listed plantation owner has paid all court-ordered fines and has not subjected employees to slavery-like conditions again, the owner is removed from the list.

According to records of the fines imposed on Mr Mello, Brazilian government inspectors freed twenty-seven workers from his plantation. The workers lacked both contracts and mandatory safety equipment. In addition, Mr Mello violated regulations regarding both the monthly payment of wages and guidelines for suitable worker housing: employers must provide beds, mattresses, bed sheets and closets, as well as separate accommodation for men and women. The plantation owner was also fined because the workers did not have access to clean drinking water, to toilets at their workplace, or to a place where they could eat their lunch that was sheltered from wind and rain. Finally, according to these records, machines without proper safety systems were used on the plantation, and the rules requiring the storage of pesticides were ignored (they must be at least 30m away from employee housing and from places where food, water and medicine are stored).


Sold on to international companies


Danwatch’s investigation revealed that Mr Mello sells coffee via one of Brazil’s largest coffee co-operatives, Cooperativa dos Cafeicultores da Zona de Três Pontas (Cocatrel), on whose audit committee he used to sit. Cocatrel confirmed to Danwatch in an email in September 2015 that Mr Mello is still a member and is still selling coffee via the co-operative, despite the discovery of conditions analogous to slavery on his plantation and his subsequent placement on the dirty list in 2014.

Cocatrel resells its members’ coffee to international coffee exporters that supply coffee brands around the world. Coffee from Cocatrel’s members has been sold to several large international exporters that supply Brazilian coffee to Nestlé and JDE: Danwatch has confirmed with exporters Tristão Companhia de Comércio Exterior (Tristão), Cooperativa Regional de Cafeicultores em Guaxupé (Cooxupé) and Volcafe that they buy coffee from Cocatrel.

After questioning by Danwatch, Tristão contacted Cocatrel to find out if Tristão had bought coffee from Eduardo Barbosa de Mello via the co-operative. Based on these inquiries, Tristão can affirm that no coffee from Mello’s plantation has been resold by Tristão in the last five years. Neither Cooxupé nor Volcafe was able to make guarantees that they had not bought and resold coffee from the plantation owned by Mr Mello.

In their reply to Danwatch, Volcafe wrote: “Cocatrel is one of the largest co-operatives in Brazil, comprising several thousand individual farmers and plantations. Cocatrel receives over a million bags of coffee each year from several thousand farmers. I can confirm we bought coffee from Cocatrel between 2008 and 2015 but have yet to receive any evidence that the coffee we bought from Cocatrel included coffee from Eduardo Barbosa de Mello’s plantation.” Cooxupé said it buys coffee from Cocatrel, but that it has no mechanisms in place to investigate which members of Cocatrel it buys its coffee from. In answer to Danwatch’s question whether Cooxupé can guarantee that it did not resell coffee from Mr Mello, Cooxupé said: “Cooxupé buys coffee from Cocatrel and not from individual members of this co-operative.” Cooxupé stated in addition that it will demand the ability to trace coffee bought from Cocatrel in the future, to ensure it does not come from coffee producers on Brazil’s dirty list. Nestlé confirmed that it buys coffee from Cooxupé, Volcafe and Tristão, all of whom purchase from the Cocatrel co-operative, which has continued to sell coffee produced by Mr Mello.


CECAFÉ rejects allegations


In a statement, the Brazilian Coffee Exporters Council (CECAFÉ), said it too had received questions from Danwatch and answered all of them, but said that the data and clarifications provided at the time were not included in the report, “thus providing a one-sided and distorted view of the reality of the Brazilian coffee industry.”

In the statement, CECAFÉ said that contrary to what was published in the report, the whole coffee production chain in Brazil is governed by strict labour and environmental laws. “Workers must be registered in accordance with the law that regulates social benefits for Brazilian workers,” it said. This includes entitlement to salary and paid holidays. It said the use of personal protective equipment “is mandatory” and any farm caught not following these rules “is punished according to the law.”

CECAFÉ said Danwatch’s report “loses credibility” because field research sampling conducted by Danwatch was limited tothe 14 farms from the Transparency List published in May 2015 by Repórter Brazil. “The study is not representative and is disrespectful to the coffee production sector, which is dedicated to following all the environmental and labour laws and rules of this country,” said CECAFÉ. “In addition, all necessary steps are being taken to bring the 14 properties cited in the report up to standard.”

CECAFÉ went on to say that the proof that the coffee industry in Brazil is well organized and managed using the best environmental practices is in its international recognition. “Today, more than 20 per cent of the production units in the country are certified by certification organisations such as UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, the 4C Association and Fairtrade, as well national organizations such as CertificaMinas and organic coffee seals.”

Apart from the problem of slavery-like working conditions, Danwatch said it found that the most serious problem for coffee workers on Brazilian plantations is the use of dangerous 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.

“These chemicals are outlawed in Denmark and the EU because they are extremely toxic and can cause serious acute and long-term health problems”, said Erik Jørs, a senior consultant in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at University Hospital and the University of Southern Denmark. Dr Jørs has studied the use of pesticides in developing countries for many years, and explained that researchers suspect that the substances damage reproductive systems and cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms such as coordination problems and trembling hands. Danwatch 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.”

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. It says the 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.

Danwatch claims that, in addition to the serious issues of child labour, pesticides and slavery-like working conditions, Brazil’s coffee industry “is beset by a number of other problems.” It says 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. ■ C&CI



This article has been published in the May 2016 issue of C&CI, click on subscribe now if you wish to read other informative articles in the May and future issues of C&CI. 



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