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The persistent traces of slavery in coffee

From the June 2016 issue.

A look at the labour conditions in the coffee industry has shown there is still some way to go before it is free of exploitation.

Reeds
When inspectors from Brazil’s labour ministry arrived unannounced at the Sandalus Farm, a smallish estate on the plateau of Vitoria da Conquista, a traditional coffee-growing area in the northeastern state of Bahia, they found scenes that many hoped belonged to the past.

Barefoot workers were expected to deliver a dozen baskets of coffee in dusk til dawn shifts. None were given even the most basic protective gear mandated by law to guard them against the hazardous chemicals sprayed over the bushes they were handling.

Waiting for them at night were lean-to shelters with no beds or mattresses. The workers had improvised cots from bricks, boards, cardboard, and matting – materials bought at their own expense.

The inspectors found pieces of rotting meat in the rough accommodation as there was “no place to store or preserve food”. With no plumbing or electricity there were also no toilets. Instead, they had “a hole covered with cement for them to defecate and urinate, continuously giving off foul odours”.

The reward for enduring these conditions, the workers told the government agents, was payment of 2.5 Reais (roughly US$0.60) per basket. But there were no contracts of any kind to formalise this arrangement. Legally, they did not exist.

Similarly appalling conditions were found on another larger estate nearby where 29 workers were living off yellow water “visibly unfit for human consumption”. They were rescued by the inspection team.

In both cases the owners were sued by authorities, both for inflicting slavery-like conditions on workers, as well as moral damages, which go to a national union fund that pays unemployment benefits to rescued workers.

The Sandalus and Sitio Novo farms were among 15 estates identified on Brazil’s so-called Dirty List – an employer register naming factories, farms, and firms across all industries found to be employing workers in conditions analogous to slavery.

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