How Coffee Pickers’ Exploited Labor Ends Up In Your Cup

An investigation into Brazil's coffee industry revealed unethical labor practices

A worker selects coffee beans from coffee plants in Brazil — REUTERS
Mar 10, 2016 at 12:23 PM ET

How was your morning coffee today? Nutty? Strong? Could you taste the indentured servitude? Turns out your morning joe may still be grown under slavery-like, life-threatening conditions even in 2016, according to a new study from DanWatch, an independent media and research center for investigative journalism.

The “Bitter Coffee” study explored the working conditions of employees along the coffee supply chain in Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of coffee, and the biggest source of coffee sold in the U.S., which imported over $1.4 billion of coffee products from Brazil last year. Coffee giants Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts account for almost half of the global coffee market, with significant markets in the U.S., and both source coffee beans from Brazil. According to the report, “both companies admit that coffee from plantations where working conditions resembled slavery may have ended up in their products,” and Nestlé also admitted to having purchased coffee from two plantations where the Brazilian authorities freed workers from conditions akin to slavery last year. So if you started your day with a ritzy-feeling Clooney-endorsed Nespresso, (or Maxwell House, or Coffee Mate, Jacobs, or a variety of other smaller brands) you could be unwittingly getting your caffeine kick via plantations where working conditions resembled slavery.

Among the violations recorded by DanWatch were practices like debt bondage, illegal child labor, unsafe use of pesticides, and other forms of labor exploitation. One major problem for Brazilians working in the coffee industry is wage theft. As many as half work without a contract, and 40 percent of those that do still experience rights violations, often having signed contracts they were incapable of reading given their literacy levels. While the minimum wage is equal to about $190 per month, 40 percent of agricultural workers in Minas Gerais, Brazil’s biggest agricultural city, are estimated to earn less than that sum. Even for those earning minimum wage, the take-home is less than a quarter of what Brazil’s Federal Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies (DIEESE) states a family of four needs to cover fundamental expenses. More commonly, however, coffee pickers are paid per full sack of beans, which means they will likely receive less than 2 percent of the total supermarket price.

Other major problems within the workforce include dangerous transportation routes and vehicles, a lack of access to clean drinking water, as well as child labor: one inspection revealed two boys under the age of 16 employed on inspected coffee plantations. As recently as three years ago, as many as 116,000 children were employed in the agriculture sector of Minas Gerais.