Evidence from public records, interviews, and other data shows that a significant and growing portion of Brazil’s coffee exports are produced using forced labor—including coffee that is certified as slavery-free and sold by coffee giants such as Starbucks and Nespresso.
The crisis is concentrated in Minas Gerais, the southeastern state that grows more than half of Brazil’s coffee. In August, a joint raid by local labor inspectors and Thomson Reuters Foundation rescued 59 workers from a single farm, including children as young as 13. All were undocumented, underpaid, and working without safety equipment.
Thomson Reuters Foundation reports:
One woman earned R$ 672 ($164) for 43 days work – about R$2 (49 cents) an hour. Inspectors found many other workers who were earning less than the legal minimum of R$998 per month.
The rescued workers lived in Campos Altos – a nearby town that hosts hundreds of seasonal coffee workers from northeast Brazil – mostly in dirty, sparse shacks without beds or fridges.
“We’re paid too little,” said Sales Felix, who shared a room with his wife and two young daughters next to another room housing three men, at the cost of about R$300 a month.
“We come from far away, and we gain nothing.”
Hundreds of coffee workers just like those in Campos Altos are rescued every year, but officials believe that those rescued represent a fraction of total victims. Over two-thirds of coffee workers in Minas Gerais are estimated to be informal, making the prevalence of forced labor very difficult to track. Plantation raids are complicated by the fact that supervisors often order workers to flee via WhatsApp at the first sign of labor inspectors.
Brazil’s government is ill-equipped to take on these challenges. In April, labor officials complained to Congress that the government body responsible for fighting modern slavery was in a “calamitous” state. The country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has made clear that he does not consider forced labor a priority. But the issue dates back much further than Bolsonaro’s government: the number of modern slavery victims rescued declined from 2,604 in 2012 to 1,154 in 2018. Amid the recession of 2017, the government cut funding for labor inspections by half. […]