Starbucks has a Slave Labor Problem

Once again, Brazilian labor inspectors have found slave labor1 on plantations where Starbucks buys coffee. And not just any plantations, but ones that have been “certified” to Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices standards. This marks the second time in nine months that this has happened, pointing to a huge systemic problem with the way Starbucks is meeting their commitment to “99% ethical coffee.” It’s time for that to change.

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Starbucks Coffee on the “Dirty List”

Starbucks’ Definition of “Ethical Coffee” includes Slave Labor. Does Yours?

How do we even know that this is happening? The Brazilian government has taken steps to address forced labor throughout their farming and manufacturing sectors. One of those steps is publishing an annual “Dirty List” of those found in violation of Brazilian law and what they have defined as modern slavery: forced labor, debt bondage, dangerous and degrading conditions, and debilitating work days.

In the fall of 2018, local labor inspectors published reports tying Starbucks to a plantation where workers were forced to work live and work in filthy conditions. Workers reported dead bats and mice in their food, no sanitation systems, and work days that stretched from 6AM to 11PM. Workers reported that the payment system was rigged and the coffee they picked disappeared before it could be tallied. Deductions to cash their checks meant that workers had barely any take-home pay.  While the plantation carried Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices certification, Starbucks denied buying from the farm in recent years (C.A.F.E. Practices allow for inspections to happen as infrequently as 2-3 years, depending on several factors including previous inspection scores).

In the more recent case, labor inspectors found workers in similarly dire conditions on another plantation certified to Starbucks’ standards. Overall, the Brazilian labor ministry reports that workers toiling in slavery-like working conditions was at a 15-year high in 2018.

Clearly, there’s a problem. And Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices program is not equal to solving it—or even to bringing the problem to light.  It is not their own transparency efforts but those of the Brazilian state that revealed the issues on these farms.

Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices – Weak in Theory and in Practice

To understand the failings of Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices program, first a little history. For two decades, advocates have pressured the world’s biggest coffee shop chain to clean up their supply chains. For years, despite calls to commit to fair trade, Starbucks’ commitment lagged. Fair trade purchases peaked in 2014 at 8.6% of coffee. Instead, Starbucks launched their own Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) code, C.A.F.E. Practices. And in 2015, Starbucks was able to claim that 99% of their coffee was “ethically sourced” in compliance with those standards.

If a company makes barely any progress on an ethical commitment for over a decade and then rewrites the standards and checks off the goal—that seems suspect, right? Ultimately, Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices standards allowed them to change the finish line and get activists off their backs. That shiny ethical veneer is significantly watered down from the fair trade commitment they couldn’t make:

  • C.A.F.E. Practices standards have no minimum guaranteed price.
  • While fair trade standards require coffee to be grown by small-scale farmers organized in cooperatives, there is no such requirement for C.A.F.E. Practices.
  • Finally, fair trade standards set the stage for farmer-led community development. Democratically administered premium funds mean that those communities get to decide how to invest in their own communities.

Further, labor advocates (and our own Justice in the Fields report) have emphasized that an annual inspection is inadequate to ensure that workers are protected on plantations and large farms. C.A.F.E. Practices standards allow farms to be inspected every 2-3 years (depending on several factors, including previous scores). Such a system is in no way equipped to protect workers—or meet its own claims of “ethical” practices.

These three points are just a few ways that C.A.F.E. Practices standards differ from fair trade, but they get to the heart of the issue: Is the goal to change the system of trade or to make someone feel good about their cup of coffee?

This sort of top-down CSR program is fundamentally not set up to address the issues that lead to workers laboring in slavery-like conditions on coffee farms. And that’s in large part because they are structural issues—the system is built on exactly these practices.

Support Small-Scale Farmers, End the Cycle of Exploitation

80% of coffee is grown by small-scale farmers, an estimated 25 million of them around the globe. Brazil, however, has a long history of large-scale coffee production. In the early 1800s, landowners built vast plantations, expanding their production on the backs of thousands of enslaved people brought from Africa. Even after slavery was abolished in the late 1880s, the same imbalance of power remains with a few landowners controlling huge amounts of land and many, many more people left landless and exploited for their labor. Brazil is not unique in this. Indeed, large-scale plantation model agriculture throughout the Americas is built on this model.

And thus, when we advocate for the industry to support small-scale farmers and fair trade, it is not merely about doing better corporate social responsibility. Large-scale plantations have amassed their land and market dominance through a sustained history of theft. To call on Starbucks to support small-scale farmers is to demand that they do their part to shift this system rooted in exploitation. With minimum prices and premium funds that are democratically controlled by farmers and their cooperatives, fair trade offers a model to do this (when defined by the terms of a strong, farmer-controlled certification such as Fairtrade International or SPP).

Coffee Farmers are in Crisis While Starbucks’ Profits Increase

The call for change is particularly urgent in 2019. Commodity market prices are hovering between $0.90-$1.00 per pound for green, unroasted coffee. Farmers are earning the same amount for their crop now as they did 20 years ago (or less, when you consider the increased cost of production). The low prices are creating a crisis in coffee, as detailed in an earlier post. Meanwhile, Starbucks gross profit has gone steadily up.

Starbucks (SBUX) Revenue per Share

A Catholic Relief Services report on labor conditions in Brazil’s coffee sector notes, “At [$1.00/pound], few growers can afford to comply with the minimum that is required of them by law, to say nothing of the reinvestment necessary to stabilize labor supply and foster farmworker empowerment.”2 Forced labor and slavery-like conditions are not the problem of a few bad apples. They are the result of a system that has historically extracted all it can from farmers and workers in the interest of profit.

Fair Trade Has Potential to Improve Farmers’ Livelihoods

Meanwhile, fair trade farmers have the potential to fare better. Fairtrade International sets a minimum price for coffee of at least $1.60 per pound for conventional and at least $1.90 per pound for organic. Farmer-led SPP (Simbolo Pequeno Productores, or Small Producers Symbol) sets their minimum at $2.20. Both are working to move the conversation around price away from minimums and towards addressing living incomes for farmers. It is not clear how much Starbucks currently pays for their coffee. Their last published report, in 2011, cited $2.38 per pound—about the same as the ever-volatile commodity market, which was hitting 14-year highs and hovering around $2.40 per pound. Since that time, their sustainability reporting has not included prices paid per pound.

Price per pound is one key issue. But the other component of farm income is volume. If a farmer is only able to sell a fraction of their crop at that higher price, the overall impact is diluted. Put another way, 72% of coffee from fair trade cooperatives gets sold outside the fair trade market. There is plenty of coffee from farmers who have already gone through the work of getting certified. The only thing they need are buyers willing to commit to fair trade terms.

It’s high time for Starbucks to drop the pretense of “99% ethical” and commit to real fair trade and small-scale farmers. Let Starbucks know that you don’t want slave labor to fill your cup: Send them an email here.

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1 Brazilian Article 149 identifies four elements as constitutive of conditions analogous to slavery:

  • Forced labor: people forced to work under threats/acts of physical or mental violence.
  • Debilitating workdays: workers subjected to workdays that go far beyond normal overtime and threaten their physical integrity.
  • Degrading conditions: people lodged in substandard housing and/or without access to personal protective equipment, decent food or water at the work fronts.
  • Debt bondage: workers are tied to labor intermediaries and/or landowners by illegal debts related to expenses on transportation, food, lodging and work equipment.
2 The Catholic Relief Services report Farmworker Protections and Labor Conditions in Brazil’s Coffee Sector was released in 2016 with the financial support of various members of the coffee industry. Starbucks was not among supporters.


27 thoughts on “Starbucks has a Slave Labor Problem

  1. Prices are at a 15-year low, slavery conditions are regularly exposed, and child labour is widespread – all as a result of the pitiful amounts paid to producers. None of this is open to debate, nobody argues this isn’t the case. Blogs and social media are full to the brim with roasters, retailers, distributors and wholesalers all saying the same thing, namely that coffee right now is about as far from sustainable as it could possibly be.
    The debate, of course, rages around whose fault it all is. Here’s the conundrum, the one unavoidable truth: Whilst the farmer is removed from the supply chain before any value is derived, this will just get worse. And that value is, of course, only generated after roasting. That’s the one thing stopping coffee production becoming a sustainable business – the very people shouting their ethical credentials loudest are the same ones contributing to these problems in the first place. Suppliers are misleading retailers and consumers alike.

  2. Starbucks has the biggest percentage of pesticide in it’s coffee compared to all the other chains. Another dirty secret!

  3. This is not good journalism. Does Anna Canning have a single case study example of a particular plantation that uses “slave labor” or is she relying on a second hand source without citation? Do Brazil’s labor inspectors release any of their findings in English or am I to assume that the author reads Portuguese? Either way can she provide any kind of link or reference to where we can follow her lead or are we just supposed to believe her unsubstantiated claims. Sloppy work Anna

    1. Thanks for the questions, Brady. There are links to the sources in the article above–they are secondary sources, and I have chosen ones in English to make them most available for readers of this page.

    2. See the connection between Monsanto, Bill Gates and you will see what this company is really all about

  4. No nation can call itself truly prosperous until the vast majority of it’s citizens are prosperous.

  5. In days where “the ceo” or whatever title Mr. S (Of S.+bucks corp) gives himself, nevermind thinks of their self as being legitimate about democracy and other floundered / shattered ideals we in the USA have been touting to be about, nevermind the facade of fair trade (nevermind toxic synthetic chemicals ridden product/peoples), nevermind the likely (i try no longer to follow W-streets’ news so much) high double digits shareholder payouts (‘dividends’ / tax write offs, etc) or if one of the low low effective corporate tax rates some of the giants o industrialized food stuffs is like many and effectively near zero, especially when factoring in the too usual toxic effects & costs of overly processed / synthetic chemical laden ingredients that are frequently priced by demand by populace of customers increasingly diabetic prone to be asleep / being put-to-sleep by and while standing in lines for largely local-killing, unsustainable, too often near slave labor, overly high processed often far flung side ingredients. Granted these types of companies, like many since before the Fake “green revolution” of modern ag econ was just going with the flow of other cancerous growth corps that helped addict customers to false sense of great products at low prices (ie, the heavy animal fed of slash and burn or gmo soy and chemical ridden cafo feed besides the near slave labor / unhealthy high processed sugars, etc….. the array of lab synthetic chemical inputs).
    It has been made difficult to be as sure about “certified organics” and some yet not all of the “fair trade” certifiers since the monUSDAsanto and syngentas got too deeply interested in largely gutting / looking other way the healthy and genuinely concerned of agricultural and health concerns; yet Fairworld Project among many other people are helping and genuinely trying for overcoming those negatives.
    Know the food you buy, help produce, eat. Know the certifiers. Boycott the bad players and cheaters (Buy local more often, get to know and support people being genuine, Regenerative Organic, the certifiers that didn’t just jump into the foray to make bucks, and producers / certifiers that didn’t turn their backs on healthy practices in producing great products when their growth was strong yet not about extreme greed / lowly denominators giving appearance of cheap products while money grubbing and often taking huge public subsidies / paying wages that are not liveable in places where people feel trapped or squeezed out by such toxic systems as S.bucks has much more fostered in itself and customer base than it could have done otherwise.
    Yes, like other commenter’s post questions here, we need to know sources (whether “news media” and or diligent and or scientific reports); yet as well if one is buying products that travel major distances, one must invest some major degree to know and support the positive efforts. When one finds truth to be hard to swallow (Whether there’s feeling of doubt or because the high processed sugars and frequent toxic laden….), people of course in land of genuine democracy (if that’s still viable description of USA) and general plentifullness and or well developed abilities / embracing genuine education that doesn’t tell people to lose or put their senses to sleep, in this type of place as much as it can be distractfully harmful we have self and world interests to be more loyal to what we, deep down, know what is right and great instead of cheap or toxic look the other way or numb consumer base. When people (producers, certifiers, / supply chains, public or private officials) harm by their actions / repeatedly don’t do right when they have taken on / report that they are certifying proper / healthy actions, both dropping their products as distributors or consumers is as important as employing systems of justice.

    1. (in that comment, i was referring to Mr. S of S.bucks having shown interest to run for public office)

  6. (High percentage of such products that “put to sleep” albeit while buttressed by caffeine and high processed sugars for the likely short term burn / long term ill health for many, including the people that grow the ingredients)

    (Sorry i didn’t edit well / make briefer)

    1. Btw, in some of their (Starbucks) stores, i knew of some very nice people working with this company as well as the relatively few that put lots of (internal) effort to help make the company much better in righting their ships’ directions and daily practices with much concern for holistic health of the company’s relationships.
      It does happen, yet as people often know, it is too frequent that large companies that frequently answer to relatively few elitists or disconnected (Disconnected from either ecological and other of relational long run realities / including genuine concern for people)….. people acting disconnected including shareholders frequently expecting what everyone knows is not viable types or amounts of “roi’s”

      1. Mr. 5.4 billion starbucks cares for no one but himself. The employees there are working like dogs ( any idiot can see it) I’m just a customer driving through the line, no special interest, Just Humane) Come on people, let’s get with it and see what small thing we can all do to end ALL THE SLAVERY and INSANITY both here in America and in other countries. I Try to leave a decent tip because I feel sure these people right here in the starbucks drive thrus are not making anything close to a living wage, so sorry to hear about the plantation slavery but, it doesn’t surprise me.

      2. Craig,
        I agree with a lot of what you have put to paper here and I just wanted to say thank you. I have been doing a lot of research on slavery for personal interest ( and I do mean a lot as I am using my Covid time to complete my degree) because I was largely unaware of the slavery happening world-wide and a lot of the programs mentioned here. I really appreciated your thoughtful and well researched comments, honestly, I feel your research may have been better than Anna’s.
        Anyways, Thank you,

      3. Kathryn,
        I will say that I am not Pro-corporate in any circumstance. Starbucks employees are hard workers but they are by no means “worked like dogs.” As a person that used to work for one of the companies that supported the administration of their benefits, and a person that has had many friends work there intermittently (that would leave and then return because they missed it) I can speak with some authority on how well their employees are treated. I became an investor in the company because they have a strong business model and because they treat there employees and the customers well. Starbucks actually DOES pay their employees a decent (whereas many America owned companies do not) If I recall they also supported/ advocated for a minimum wage increase in WA State where they are based. Consider that at least 2% (probably quite a lot more) of all consumer goods that you purchase every day are products of slave labor and one of the ways to stop slave labor practices is to vote with your dollar. You are happily spending $5-10$ for a coffee where there are literally families subject to slavery conditions in Brazil that are may be making $14.00 a month. Consider doing some research yourself ( and not just reading one article) before you pop-off and call anyone else an idiot.

  7. Are there any current updated as to these conditions? Or response/action from Starbucks?

    1. Hi Brittany,
      As of now, I haven’t seen updates on this case except that Starbucks said they aren’t buying anymore. Then this year, child labor was found on farms they were buying from in Guatemala. So far, their response has been to restate their policies & distance themselves from the farms in question. Overall, it seems clear that their standards & systems are not up to actually addressing the root causes of the problem – you can’t “fix” poverty if you don’t pay fair prices to start!
      More on that here:

      1. Anna,
        I don’t completely disagree with some of the statements you have raised here (like that slavery exists in the supply chain for this company as well as many others) but I feel that there were some considerations that you didn’t make (perhaps due to weak research) or you intentionally left-off to inflame your readership.

        You regularly state above that C.A.F.E. only reviews their certifications once every 2-3 years (which I agree is not enough) but you also regularly fail to mention that that is actually better than the industry standard which is the square-root rule whereby of 5200 farms only 70 would be reviewed to verify they are following the conditions of their certification (slave labor, no child labor AND FAIR-TRADE).
        I point you to “The Source: The Hidden Human Cost Within a Cup of Coffee” Weather Films, 20 Dec 2016,

        I also highly recommend the following article by Stanford University discussing why fair trade really isn’t doing what it was meant to do. Haight, Colleen, “The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee.” Stanford Social Innovation Review: Informing and Inspiring Leaders of Social Change, Stafford University, Summer 2011,

        I’d say, as a general rule, there is a lot we need to do about slavery but I DO think that murky supply chain is a big part of the problem and if C.A.F.E. adds some transparency then I think that could be a benefit.

  8. I recommend reading Pathologies of Power and Death without Weeping. These books will show you that fair trade is not the way to fix these very complex issues. A re-imagining of the market is required to lift the floor (c-price) and the ceiling (top dollar payments). As long as coffee farmers have to take out loans to grow and tend their crops, the problem will rear its Ugly head in some other way. Fair trade helps rich white people who run the program more than it doesn’t the farmers who participate, unfortunately. And direct trade is hard for an insurable product that relies on importers and exporters to absorb the risk of shipping a commodity that is scrapped when it gets wet from the containers leaking. There is much more to a fair world than just purporting fair trade all day long. You have to fix the system. Not put a bandaid on it.

    1. Thank you for the book recommendations, Chris. I agree with you on many of your points and look forward to reading these.

  9. C.A.F.E. was actually created when Starbuck’s partnered up with Conservation International. Starbucks partners with many nonprofits, and allows them to carry on much of the work they were already doing, while providing them with much of the financial support needed. By no means is Starbucks guilt-free, and there are major areas for improvement towards sustainability and ethical sourcing and labor. Still, it’s important to consider further research into the issue.

    1. Hi Shay, thanks for your note. It’s true that Starbucks has worked with many non-profits and given money. However, corporate charity (or any charity!) does not offset responsibility for human rights conditions in supply chains. In fact, giving to charities and pointing the finger to that when called out for other issues is a classic “greenwashing” technique across many industries (Conservation International’s work with Chevron is a classic example of this). If you’re interested in this, I’d definitely suggest listening to the episode of our podcast where we talk to Charity Ryerson of Corporate Accountability Lab:
      It’s definitely an issue I’ve done a fair amount of research on, but if you have sources that you think I’d find useful, I’d appreciate it!

  10. I have read this article and completely agree with everything that’s been said but I want to know if there is any more information on this subject.

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