A 2016 report on Brazil’s coffee industry by independent research center Danwatch has uncovered hundreds of cases of workers suffering debt bondage, child labor, exposure to deadly pesticides, a lack of protective equipment and accommodation without doors, windows or mattresses.

Location of State of Minas Gerais in Brazil

Location of State of Minas Gerais in Brazil

The shocking revelations show that hundreds of plantation workers have had to be rescued by Brazilian authorities every year from slavery-like conditions. In July and August 2015, 128 people – including six children and teenagers – were freed from plantations in Minas Gerais, Brazil’s largest coffee-growing state, by the labor ministry.

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of coffee, and accounts for about one third of the global market. But finding such inhumane conditions in agricultural supply chains isn’t unusual, even in Brazil where the government has made considerable efforts to tackle forced labor.

None of the farms mentioned in the report were UTZ certified at the time of investigation. However, at UTZ we take the situation raised by Danwatch extremely seriously, and will continue to maintain our quality assurance system to make sure UTZ certified farms meet the strict requirements as set in the UTZ Code of Conduct.

Raising standards through certification

While we recognize that certification alone cannot provide a complete answer, studies show that once farmers see the social, environmental and economic benefits of UTZ certification, they are more likely to invest in and raise standards for their workforce.

AuditIn the case of Brazilian coffee plantations, most hold individual certification, which means that each farm is individually inspected by third-party auditors every year. If one or more non-­conformities with the UTZ Code of Conduct are found during an annual audit, the member must resolve the issue within a set timeframe, and also work to prevent it from reoccurring in the future.

This means that UTZ can support our partners to help assure that products have been sourced sustainably, and that conditions for workers maintain the high standards laid out in our Code of Conduct.

Indeed, the report notes that Vilson Luiz da Silva, head of Minas Gerais’s largest agricultural workers’ union, believes that conditions on certified plantations are significantly better than those on non-certified coffee plantations.

“The certified plantations know that if they don’t observe the rules and ensure good working conditions, they will lose their next order. So certification does make a big difference,” says da Silva.

UTZ: a safety net

Danwatch interviewed 65-year-old José Maria, who worked for many years without a contract on different coffee plantations in Brazil, which meant he had no right to social security benefits, and had to work even when he was sick.

Coffee farmer José Maria, Brazil

José Maria picks coffee with an electric rake, protective glasses and hearing protection at a certified farm, in Minas Gerais.
Photo: Maurilo Clareto/DanWatch

Today he works under very different conditions on a plantation certified by UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance. Unlike workers on non-certified farms, who were spraying toxic pesticides that are illegal in the EU without protective equipment, José was fully kitted out with boots and safety equipment supplied by his employer.

“You can talk to the plantation owner,” he says. “If you have back problems, you can say, ‘I can’t do this or that kind of task.’ And if you are asked to apply pesticides, you can say, ‘I can’t, I’m allergic,’ and someone else will do it.”

José is a good example of how UTZ certification acts as a safety net, encouraging plantations to treat their workers better, and thereby providing assurance of good practice. And that’s why by sourcing UTZ certified coffee, you are helping us work towards a more sustainable coffee sector, without any mistreatment of workers, corruption or other social abuse.

Read more about how UTZ works to maintain its strict assurance system.