These days, it’s not unusual for big corporations to be in the news for, shall we say, less than stellar reasons. Rumors of corruption, embezzlement, or general misconduct attach to some of these corporations and become synonymous with them across all forms of media.
Luckily, many of those organizations are big enough and popular enough that it won’t stop most people from using their products or services. Recently, however, a Starbucks in Brazil was linked to some rather questionable human rights practices at one of its coffee plantations.
If one walked past the Córrego das Almas farm in Piumhi, in rural Minas Gerais, Brazil, they might immediately assume that the modest property is nothing more than a prospering agricultural institution. At first glance, you might notice the international certifications on the gate, including one showing it’s affiliation to the Starbucks Corporation.
You might also notice the sign that reads, “No slave or forced labor is allowed.” This, of course, seems to many of us like a no-brainer. Yet though slavery has been mostly abolished in some areas of the world, there are still places where the conditions for workers are such that they might be compared directly to slavery.
The Brazil Labor Ministry investigators who arrived at Córrego das Almas farm saw the sign and believed that what the farm asserted was true. That was until they began looking around the place and discovered the 18 workers laboring in the coffee field were living and working in brutal, almost slave-like conditions.
The living conditions for the workers at Córrego das Almas farm were downright deplorable. Their substandard living quarters lacked almost all the basic amenities necessary for human habitation, including working sewage and drinkable water. The workers also had to share living space with some unwelcome roommates as well.
All of the housing was collective housing as well and, bereft of proper plumbing as it was, was a health hazard all on its own. The lack of sanitation in the houses was so bad that it put the workers’ health at risk. Inspectors found dead bats in the water tanks but regardless of this fact, workers were still using the potentially disease-laden water for cooking and drinking.
Bats and mice were everywhere they looked, not only inside the workers’ homes, but also in their food stores, barns, and storehouses. The inspectors also found evidence that it wasn’t just the living conditions the owners provided that were substandard, but also the operational standards as well.
One of the workers spoke out against their treatment at the farm. “We weren’t paid for holidays, Sundays, nothing,” they explained. “We worked from Monday to Saturday with no record of the hours. During the week, we would start at 6 am and only stop at 5 pm.” According to them, they also received payment based on the amount of coffee beans they picked.
Unfortunately, this payment structure was also rigged to benefit the farm owners. Workers would harvest coffee beans then leave them to be weighed the next day. By the time they returned to weigh their previous day’s work, the beans would be gone and their work would count for nothing. When asked where their coffee was, the overseers would just laugh.
Pay to Get Paid
None of the workers made enough money to send to their relatives back home, let alone afford food at the farms nearby every week. If workers did want to cash their checks or purchase food, they would have to pay $20 for a plantation-owned bus to transport them there and back. Essentially, they had to pay in order to get paid.
The Córrego das Almas farm has three million coffee trees, herds of cattle, and over 151 employees. It has been leased and managed by Fabiana Soares, who apparently didn’t know about the slave labor going on. According to her lawyer, Ms. Soares didn’t learn about the conditions until the inspection took place.
Try to Comply
Ms. Soares’ lawyer even released a statement to the press following the incident which read, “Our farm has been operating in the coffee market for many years and has always sought to comply with all legal requirements, that includes obtaining all certifications, licenses, and awards whose requirements are extremely strict.”
Besides the obvious human rights violations, there is another reason that the loathsome conditions at the Córrego das Almas farm are getting so much media attention. The farm holds the C.A.F.E. Practices certification, which is owned by Starbucks in partnership with SCS Global Services. This means that in general, the farm has been inspected for quality by a highly regarded purveyor of coffee, and fairly recently in fact.
Starbucks, of course, denies that they have bought any coffee from the farm in recent years and went on to attest that they haven’t been certified since 2016. Nevertheless, the coffee conglomerate has also stated that they are in the process of re-evaluating the seal and plan to pay closer attention to any labor violations they might uncover.
In addition to the C.A.F.E. certification, the Córrego das Almas farm also boasts the UTZ seal. This Netherlands-based certificate is given in recognition of sustainable farming and is only given to the most prestigious agricultural institutions in the coffee industry. Like the C.A.F.E. seal, however, the inspection brought the farm’s UTZ seal into question.
UTZ representatives have said that workers’ rights and their well-being are of the utmost importance to the standards they have used to award such certificates. “Whenever we receive reliable evidence of breaches on UTZ certified farms, we take immediate action, which includes conducting a thorough investigation,” said the organization.
More in Bondage
Because of the issues at Córrego das Almas farm, additional inspections were held at other farms in the area. Another inspection occurred in the town of Muzambinho at a farm owned by Maria Júlia Pereira. Maria happens to be the sister-in-law of a state deputy, Emidinho Madeira. The search uncovered 15 workers in slave-like conditions; one of whom was only 17 years old.
More Horrific Conditions
The 15 laborers on the Periera-owned farm revealed that conditions on their farm were similar to the ones on the Córrego das Almas farm. The workers were forced to buy their own equipment which in turn indebted them to the farm’s owner for between $2,500-$3,000. That’s before the harvesting even began.
No Time for Breaks
The workers were also forced to work for 90 days straight. They worked from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. with no breaks for lunch and barely any bathroom breaks, either. The only times the coffee harvesting stopped at all was on rainy days. It was brutal, but thankfully when the revelations came to light, reparations were made.
The farms’ owners now had to pay for their negligence. The Córrego da Prata Farm was cited for 34 violations and ended up paying $87,000 in damages to its workers. Meanwhile, Córrego das Almas farm was given 27 notifications and ordered to pay $ 71,000 in severance.
The revelations on these farms have shed new light into not only the certification process but upon the often overlooked practices of large corporations like Starbucks. It’s easy to forget such things as we hastily slurp our morning Macchiato but now that the human rights abuses on these farms have come into the public eye, there is hope that they will cease happening.