Chapter 8: Freed from debt spiral and conditions analogous to slavery
Every year, Brazilian authorities liberate coffee workers who live under conditions analogous to slavery. The workers can be forced, for example, to sleep on coffee sacks on the floor, or may be trapped in a debt spiral that prevents them from leaving the plantation. Authorities only have the resources to free half of the affected workers.
Even though it is Sunday, two workers are in full swing picking coffee in Patrocínio, a municipality in Minas Gerais, Brazil’s largest coffee-producing state. They have been at it since sunrise, and their workday will not finish until 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening. A slim man wearing a dirty blue and white striped polo shirt and a green baseball cap introduces himself as José.
“We have to work on Saturday and Sunday”, he says.
The other worker, who introduces himself as Lucas, chimes in. “Just like we are doing now. We can’t stop. Sometimes we work even when we are sick. I don’t feel well right now. My back hurts”, he says.
The two coffee pickers are migrant workers from Irecê in the state of Bahia, over 1200 km from here. In part because of drought, it is difficult for the residents of Bahia to find work, so many have to travel to other parts of Brazil in order to provide for their families.
Working conditions for migrant workers are typically markedly worse than for local coffee pickers. They often work seven days a week with no day off, and many of them become trapped in a debt spiral: they may, for example, owe money to the plantation owner for food and for the journey to the plantation. This prevents them from travelling home again in spite of the poor conditions.
“If I could leave here, I would”, says José, explaining that he doesn’t have enough money for the bus ticket home.
Every year, the Brazilian authorities free migrant workers on coffee plantations who are living under what Brazilian criminal code calls “conditions analogous to slavery”. Some workers are freed because they live under what are called degrading conditions: for example, they may sleep on coffee sacks on the floor because they are not provided with a bed. Other workers are freed because they are trapped in a debt spiral that makes it impossible for them to leave the plantations.
Brazilian law regarding conditions analogous to slavery
According to the Brazilian criminal code, Article 149, it is illegal to subject a person to conditions analogous to slavery. This includes subjecting a person to forced labour, subjecting a person to degrading working conditions, and restricting a person’s freedom of movement because of debt to an employer or agent.
In July and August 2015, the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment completed sixteen inspections of coffee plantations in southern Minas Gerais state. On five of them, inspectors found conditions that the Ministry described as analogous to slavery. In all, 128 workers, including six children and teenagers, were liberated. Over the last five years, several hundred workers have been freed from Brazilian coffee plantations.
Danwatch has obtained more than fifteen confidential inspection reports from the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment that describe circumstances on coffee plantations where authorities have found conditions analogous to slavery. In July 2015, Danwatch participated in one of these inspections and interviewed some of the liberated workers.
The details vary from case to case, but in a typical scenario, migrant workers are transported by bus from their hometown to plantations in southern Minas Gerais at the beginning of the coffee harvest in June. The bus ride typically takes one or two days. When the workers arrive at the plantation, they are told that they must pay back the cost of the journey with their earnings. Their wages will not be paid until the harvest is complete three months later, but until then they can buy food on credit. This is how a debt spiral begins.
“The worker ends up in a situation in which he owes the plantation owner money, and therefore is obliged to keep working under these terrible conditions. He has no cash, and therefore cannot buy a bus ticket back to his hometown”, says Jorge Ferreira dos Santos Filho, coordinator of the organisation Articulação dos Empregados Rurais de Minas Gerais, known as Adere, which helps migrant workers report conditions analogous to slavery to the authorities.
Lured into debt bondage
Migrant workers typically come from northern Minas Gerais or from nearby states to the northeast, like Bahia, where drought has made agriculture difficult, and where job prospects are few. The head of the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour in Brazil, Luiz Machado, explains that workers usually leave home believing that they have been hired for an ordinary job in the coffee harvest.
The workers are paid for each 60-litre coffee sack they fill with coffee. At some plantations, however, workers’ salaries are withheld until the harvest is over, forcing them to buy food on credit from the plantation owners. Photo: Maurilo Clareto Costa.
“They think that they will live on a plantation for a few months, get paid, and go home. But sometimes they end up in debt bondage instead”, says Machado.
In their hometowns, the migrant workers are typically contacted by a so-called gato (cat, ed.) who is hired by the plantation to recruit coffee pickers. The gato visits the workers and asks if they are interested in working that year’s harvest.
“The gato is paid for each worker he recruits to the plantation. Often, the gato stays on the plantation for the whole harvest and oversees the work”, says labour attorney and public prosecutor Elaine Noronha Nassif, who has investigated slavery-like working conditions in Minas Gerais. According to her, it is usually men in their thirties or forties with little or no education who agree to the gato’s offer to leave their hometowns and work as coffee pickers.
“The money they earn during the harvest is intended to support their families back home”, she explains.
Even though most of the migrant workers are young men, a sizeable number are women, and even entire families accept the gato’s offer of travel to the coffee plantations during the harvest.
“The gato promises them all sorts of things: free food, nice accommodations. But when the workers arrive at the plantation, what they find there is far from what they were promised,” says Jorge Ferreira dos Santos Filho from Adere.
Only half get help
Forced labour and slavery-like conditions are widespread in Brazil
Conditions analogous to slavery are not only found on Brazilian coffee plantations. Every year, inspectors from the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment liberate workers from plantations growing other crops, as well as from other kinds of workplaces, like the textile industry. Slavery-like conditions are especially widespread in Brazil’s sugar, construction, livestock and charcoal industries.
Several hundred workers have been liberated from Brazilian coffee plantations in the last five years, but many more end up in conditions analogous to slavery.
According to the ILO’s Luiz Machado, the number of workers freed by the inspectors do not reflect the real number of workers working under conditions analogous to slavery.
“Only about half of the cases in which workers report conditions analogous to slavery are inspected. The last fifty percent are never reached by the authorities”, he says.
The inspections take place when the Ministry of Labour and Employment gets a tip that there are problems on a plantation – usually when a worker manages to escape and report the conditions.
”The workers don’t usually go to the police. There is a lot of corruption in some areas, and there have been reports of police taking workers back to plantations”, says Machado.
Instead, the coffee pickers go to organisations like Adere, where Santos helps them make a report to the Ministry of Labour and Employment. According to him, the numbers are even larger than Luiz Machado from the ILO estimates.
“If the authorities inspected every reported case, two or three times as many workers would be liberated”, he says.
Plantation owners are usually fined
Inspectors find conditions analogous to slavery most often on medium-sized plantations, and according to Santos, their owners often have local political connections and high incomes.
Elaine Noronha Nassif, the public prosecutor and expert in slavery-like conditions, says that the punishments imposed on the plantation owners are usually on the lenient side.
“Technically, the plantation owners could go to jail for two to eight years, but that rarely happens. They usually pay a fine instead”, says Nassif.
Previously, owners of coffee plantations where inspectors found slavery-like conditions were also put on the lista suja, a “dirty list” published by the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment. Listed plantation owners could not obtain loans from large state-owned banks and were boycotted by firms that were signatories to the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour. On December 22, 2014, the dirty list was temporarily removed from the website of the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment because the service organisation of the Brazilian construction industry (Associação Brasileira de Incorporadoras Imobiliárias) sued for its removal in the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil. As long as the suit is in progress – which could take years – the list will not be published on the website of the Ministry of Labour and Employment. Nevertheless, an alternative dirty list, based on exactly the same information about the labour ministry’s inspections, is still published by the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour and Repórter Brasil, a Brazilian NGO.
And yet, according to Luiz Machado from the ILO, when it comes to combating forced labour and slavery-like conditions, Brazil is ahead of other countries in South and Central America.
“Brazil has its limitations, but it is the only country that has a dirty list, an action plan, and regulatory inspections. However, the authorities cannot respond to every complaint because they lack personnel and resources”, says Machado.
Slavery-like conditions put owners on the dirty list
Until December 2014, owners of coffee plantations at which the Brazilian authorities found conditions analogous to slavery were placed on a ‘dirty list’, called the lista suja, published by the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment. In December 2014, the dirty list was temporarily removed from the website of the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment because an organisation representing the Brazilian construction industry (Associação Brasileira de Incorporadoras Imobiliárias) sued for its removal in the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil. As long as the suit is in progress – which could take years – the list will not be published on the website of the Ministry of Labour and Employment. Nevertheless, an alternative dirty list, based on exactly the same information about the labour ministry’s inspections, is still published by the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour and Repórter Brasil, a Brazilian NGO. If after two years, a listed plantation owner has paid all court-ordered fines and has not subjected employees to slavery-like conditions again, the owner is removed from the list.
Link to the dirty list:
A vicious circle
When workers are liberated by inspectors from the Ministry of Labour and Employment, they are usually housed in a local hotel, where they can stay until the authorities complete the paperwork necessary to ensure they receive the wages they are owed by the plantation owner. In addition to their pay for work they have already completed, the workers receive compensation in the amount of three months’ minimum wage, or 2364 reais in all (about $580).
Many of the workers that are freed by the Brazilian authorities end up working in conditions analogous to slavery again, says internationally-recognised human rights advocate Xavier Jean Marie Plassat from the organisation Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT). Like Adere, CPT helps workers report cases of slavery-like conditions to the Ministry of Labour and Employment.
“The usual problem is that workers don’t find anything different when they return to their hometown. The probability that they will migrate once more and end up in bad labour conditions again is therefore very high”, Plassat says.
Often, the gatos who take workers to the problematic plantations are able to continue their work uninterrupted.
“The gato usually comes from the workers’ local area. If a worker complains about a gato, he won’t take that person to the next harvest and he will tell the other gatos not to use him, either. So the worker ends up on a dirty list and can’t get work at harvest time any more”, says Jorge Ferreira dos Santos Filho.
Unable to go home
On the plantation in Patrocínio, the two migrant workers continue to pull leaves and berries off the coffee bushes. They dream of going home to Bahia, but can’t afford the bus ticket, which they say costs between 170-220 reais (about $40-55).
The meeting with the two workers is short. The gato is somewhere nearby, and they might get in trouble for talking to Danwatch.
* The names of coffee pickers in Patrocínio have been changed to protect their identities.
Hundreds of coffee workers are liberated
The internationally recognised human rights advocate Xavier Jean Marie Plassat from the organisation Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), which helps workers to report cases of slavery-like conditions, is in possession of the most widely accepted statistics regarding the prevalence of these conditions on coffee plantations. According to Plassat, these numbers represent a conservative estimate, but they indicate that several hundred coffee workers have been freed from conditions analogous to slavery on Brazilian plantations in the last few years:
2014: 195 workers from six coffee plantations, including 11 children and teenagers, of whom 5 were under 16 years old and 6 were between 16 and 18 years old.
2013: 71 workers from six coffee plantations.
2012: 26 workers from two coffee plantations.
2011: 129 workers from seven coffee plantations, including 2 children and teenagers under 16 years old.
2010: 204 workers from nine coffee plantations, including 4 children and teenagers, of whom 2 were under 16 years old and 2 were between 16 and 18 years old.
It is illegal for children under 16 years old to work on coffee plantations, although children between 16 and 18 years old may do so as long as it does not interfere with their schooling.