Brazil: where multinationals squeeze orange pickers dry

Just a few weeks away from the football World Cup kick-off in Brazil, a new report has revealed the appalling working conditions of thousands of orange pickers, particularly in the south-eastern state of São Paulo.

“Workers harvesting for these companies are not chained up like the slaves of the past. But they are held prisoner in a different way,” says a trade unionist interviewed for Orange Juice: No Regard for Labour Rights?, a report released by the German service sector union Ver.di and the Christian NGO Oscar Romero.

Brazil, the world’s leading orange producer, is responsible for the production of a third of the world’s oranges, more than half of the orange juice and more than 80 per cent of concentrated orange juice.

These products find their way to European supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl through a value chain that involves multinationals like Citrosuco/Citrovita, Cutrale and Louis Dreyfus Commodities.

Despite the billions of dollars generated by the industry, the orange pickers at the front of the production chain only receive the crumbs of the generated profits.


“Blatant slavery”

As they are paid per kilo, workers have to pick around two tonnes of oranges a day to earn the equivalent of the legal minimum wage of US$12 a day – about US$360 a month.

Their daily reality consists of carrying 60 sacks of oranges weighing 40 kilos each.

Unfortunately, their income level fails to meet their basic needs, as it is estimated that they should earn at least US$20 a day to be able to have a decent life.

According to research, of the 238,000 people working in orange plantations in the state of São Paulo in 2011, only 58,000 had a fixed-term contract.

Since most of the pickers come to these plantations from the poor north-east of Brazil, some 3,000 kilometres away, they need board and lodging for which exorbitant fees are deducted from their wages.

It is not unusual for the workers to accumulate debts as high as US$7000 within a few months, causing some to want to work at any cost.

“I have seen colleagues sick with fever coming to work at the factory because they were afraid of losing their job,” reads the report.

“The workers’ economic and psychological dependence is immense,” complains Marcio Bortolucci, a lawyer representing the orange pickers’ union STER Piratininga, which is affiliated to UGT Brazil (União Geral dos Trabalhadores).

He concludes that their working conditions do not just qualify as forced labour, but as blatant slavery.


The orange cartel

Those hiring the workers are usually subcontractors of Citrosuco/Citrovita, Cutrale and Louis Dreyfus Commodities, who control together 70 per cent of the world market in orange juice and concentrate.

Their market position allows them to put pressure on prices, and agreements between competitors are routine practices.

“Each year, at the beginning of the harvesting season, the companies agree on the annual price to be paid to producers,” explains Flavio Viegas de Tendenz, president of Associtrus, the Brazilian association of orange and citron producers.

The Brazilian federal state has initiated a series of proceedings against these multinationals, which have resulted in the imposition of financial penalties but not in stopping these practices.

The report also concludes that the web of dependencies and exploitation is not limited to Brazil, but involves the entire supply chain, including sales and retail operations, especially in Germany where “juice bottling companies are making the biggest profits”.

As trade between Europe and Latin America will most probably intensify over the next years, in light of a possible free trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, a petition launched by the NGO World Solidarity calls upon the European Commissioner for Trade Karel De Gucht to “put in place a structural policy where decent work for all products is the norm.”

This echoes the demands made by trade unions for decent work to be at the centre of trade relations between Europe and Latin America.