The Coffee Song sometimes known as They’ve Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil is a song written by Bob Hilliard and Dick Miles and first recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1946. As we all know there has been an explosion of growth in coffee outlets across the world since the early 1970s.
The leader of the coffee companies is the Starbucks Corporation headquartered in Seattle, Washington. It was not until 1987 when the company was sold to employee Howard Schultz that the Starbucks we know today really began to take shape. They are by far and away the largest coffee house in the world operating 30,000 locations worldwide in over 77 countries.
Consumption of coffee today is at record levels driven by companies such as Starbucks and US published data shows that Brazil accounts for more than a third of global supply. It exported about $4.5 billion of coffee in 2018, according to United Nations trade data.
A recent Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation over six months uncovered extensive slave labour running largely unchecked in Brazil’s billion-dollar coffee industry despite years of efforts to clean up the sector.
Many in the industry who are campaigning to end slavery in Brazil said they are wary of President Jair Bolsonaro, who recently said child labour was not harmful and complained that the legal definition of slave labour under Brazilian law was too broad.
Exclusively obtained data by Thomson Reuters including analysis of public records and dozens of interviews revealed coffee produced by forced labour was stamped slavery-free by top certification schemes and sold at a premium to major brands such as Starbucks and Nespresso.
Although demand by consumers for products produced from slave-free coffee beans in Brazil is increasing, labour inspectors are hampered by a shortage of staff, money and political will. Not only that they also fear abuse which is increasing. Civil society groups, unions and legislators have voiced concern about the reputation of Brazil’s coffee industry being damaged if the failure to stop slavery continued.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation found via sources that the state’s coffee plantations have attracted the attention of US customs officials who can block imports of slave-tainted goods. American Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has recently met labour inspectors and prosecutors in the largest coffee producing state Minas Gerais. This is thought by sources to be the first such meetings to discuss the industry.
Two Brazilian sources present at separate meetings with CBP officials voiced concern some coffee exports could be detained. Genevieve LeBaron, a politics professor at Britain’s Sheffield University who has studied labour conditions in Brazil said, “Consumers believe that when they pay $2 more for certified coffee, that money is being handed to workers when there is very little actual evidence that is the case.”
Starbucks, Swiss-based Nespresso owned by Nestle and Brazil’s Nucoffee have all used coffee plantations found by labour officials to have exploited labourers in recent years. Asked about the findings, the companies said they were committed to tackling slave labour and were working with producers to improve their labour practices and avoid slavery.
Hopefully the rise in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign which campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people will help those being exploited in the Brazilian coffee industry.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]