The hidden cost of orange juice | DW Documentary
Orange juice is a several billion dollar industry. Brazil is the world's largest citrus producer. Here, on almost 600,000 hectares of land, oranges are grown some of them becoming Germany’s favorite juice. Thousands make their living picking oranges. But there’s much to criticize about their working conditions.
You're under extreme pressure, and accidents can happen because you're concentrating on the harvest and get careless. You’re on top of a ladder with a heavy bag on your shoulders. They should treat us like human beings, not like livestock. Sure, we depend on them, but they also depend on us. Who else is going to pick their oranges? Is there any truth to these accusations? We embark on a journey to Brazil to investigate: how is the orange juice produced there? 4:30 AM. The many orange pickers in the state of Sao Paulo
are already on their feet. Among them is Afonso. Like any other day, he has eight hours of work ahead of him. This canister holds 5 liters of water. But that's not enough for a day's work, the sun is too strong. I need two of these canisters to get through the day.
You drink ten liters a day? Yes, exactly. The sun is very hot. Temperatures on the plantations can reach up to 35 degrees celsius. Directly under the sun, it feels even hotter. For 6 years, Afonso has been picking oranges for the juice industry from Monday to Saturday.
In a good month, he earns about 250 euros. That is more than the Brazilian minimum wage. Yet he barely manages to make ends meet for himself, his wife and their daughter.
I like the work, though many don't. But everyone here needs it, they have to work. Many also have families. You can get by with what you earn, but there’s nothing left to save.
It's tiring. But even though it's hard: I want my daughter to have what I didn't have. No matter how hard it is. Afonso's wife also used to work as an orange picker. Now he is the sole breadwinner. Because Afonso would like to spare her the work in the fields.
I don't want her to suffer like I do. You work in the sun, rain, cold, extreme heat, it's physically exhausting. A bag weighs 27 kilos. That's too much. I don’t mean for women in general, but for my wife.
I don't want her to have to endure what I go through in the field. What exactly do Afonso and his colleagues experience in the field? We want to accompany them, but filming the pickers at work is not so easy, as we’re about to find out. Ubirajara, the village where Afonso lives, is rather remote. Just around 5,000 people normally live here. But between May and December that number can grow to 6,000. This is because the region around Ubirajara which is in the state of Sao Paulo is home to most of Brazil's orange plantations.
Many are seasonal workers who come to the village from northeastern Brazil, some 2,000 kilometers away, where people have fewer opportunities to earn money. In Sao Paulo, they work for a few months each year before returning home after the harvest is finished. To reach the plantations, Afonso has to travel by bus for 45 minutes. The ride is organized by the company, but the workers aren’t compensated for this time. We would like to accompany Afonso, but his employer won’t give us permission.
We ask on other plantations too, but do not get permission to shoot. Most claim it’s due to Covid-19 security measures. But our team has attracted attention in the area: it seems we are being watched. We were hoping to visit Afonso and his family again in the afternoon. But that’s not possible anymore.
The plantation owner has informed Afonso that he has violated his contract. The apartment he rents is provided by his employer. And according to the contract, he is not allowed to let outsiders in ? including us. Even though our visit was arranged with Afonso's supervisor the day before, Afonso is banned from working for eleven days, losing almost half of his monthly salary. At Afonso's request, we do not contact his employer. But we ask the association of Brazil’s major citrus producers, CitrusBR, to clarify the situation.
Since we are still being watched, we call off the shoot with Afonso. We don't want to get him into any more trouble. The fact that our visit had such drastic consequences for Afonso raises more questions for us.
How exactly does the orange industry work in Brazil? Around 75% of the world's orange juice exports come from the country. To make it, workers pick between 65 and 110 billion oranges a year, by hand. The industry is dominated by three multinational companies, Louis Dreyfus, Citrosuco and Cutrale. They are responsible for a large part of the juice exports. About half of the oranges for global juice production come from their own plantations. The other half comes from independent farmers who supply the industry.
Days after we last saw Afonso, we finally get permission to shoot at an orange field in Sao Paulo. The visit is organized by the juice companies’ association on the plantation of one of their suppliers. Unlike in supermarkets back home, the oranges here are green and yellow.
This has nothing to do with ripeness, but rather with temperature. The green chlorophyll in the peel only breaks down below 12 degrees Celsius, and this is what makes them orange. In this field, 30 workers pick oranges for consumption in Brazil and the global juice industry. Using a ladder, the workers pick the fruit from the trees, which are up to five meters tall. A filled sack weighs about 27 kilos.
In the beginning, I did everything wrong. Now I know that you work the tree from top to bottom in one go. When I started, I picked all the trees individually just at the bottom, and then I picked them all again individually just at the top. I put the boxes upside down or in the wrong place, it was very complicated. We notice the tremendous speed at which the workers pick. With their bare hands, each of them harvests about 1.6 tons
of oranges a day. So on average, each one fills just under eight 27-kilo bags per hour Those who can't keep up this fast pace risk losing their job at least according to the union. We meet Aparecido Bispo. He works for the agricultural union Feraesp, which also conducts independent studies documenting the working conditions on the plantations.
These companies only keep the workers who pick a certain amount. To be able to do the job next year, they have to harvest an average of 60 bags. In addition, the boss, known as the “gato,” constantly exerts pressure. This is because his salary also depends on how much the workers harvest. The billion-dollar juice companies pay the legal minimum wage of 1,200 reais, the equivalent of around 200 euros a month, regardless of the amount harvested.
This wage is barely enough to survive in Brazil. That's why, according to the union, many workers try to collect even more so they can top up their pay with bonuses. We meet Ibiapaba Netto, director of CitrusBR, the association of the three juice giants. He is the voice of the Brazilian orange juice industry. He explains that the productivity principle is there to reward those who work hardest.
This increases an average salary to about 280 euros. Although Netto states that he does not know the specific quantities workers are expected to harvest, he struggles to understand the criticism of the productivity principle. In every job, you have to reach a certain goal in order to continue working.
That doesn't seem strange to me. You have a certain goal and it has to be achieved. I don't see why it should be different in orange picking. Here on the plantation where the association has given us permission to film, conditions appear ideal.
Ibiapaba Netto assures us that what we see here is common practice across the citrus industry. Workers are wearing personal protective equipment: goggles and gloves against the sharp thorns of the trees and leg protection against poisonous snake bites. These are required by labor law on all orange farms. The industry association assures us this is also written in the contracts with their suppliers and orange pickers. But the union tells us a different story. With the union’s help, we find a small plantation in Sao Paulo, where we shoot unnoticed and without permission.
Here, things look very different. Some of the workers don’t have snake protection or gloves. We cannot say with certainty whether these oranges are also intended for juice. But what we see here is no exception, say the trade unionists, also in the juice industry. Abel Barreto agrees. The 70 year-old has dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of Brazilian orange pickers.
He was head of the Feraesp union until 2017. Though he is now retired, Abel Barreto still maintains close contact with the workers in Ubirajara. Which is how he learns firsthand about the conditions on the plantations. The workers rarely have any protective equipment. Especially at smaller suppliers, where conditions are worse, they do not follow health and safety regulations. Companies have been allowed to outsource work since 2017.
This means that they can hand over work and responsibility for it to third parties ? including individuals. As the Ministry of Labor explains, it’s especially these "subcontractors" who often lack the financial resources for protective gear or compliance with labor laws. As outsourcing has grown since 2017, the problems for orange pickers have grown too. We always find violations when third-party companies are involved. The working conditions at the smaller producers are often not the same as those of the big companies that purchase the fruit.
Prosecutor José Maturana has been monitoring labor law violations for 25 years, including on orange plantations. On-site inspections are part of his job. Time and again, he encounters unregistered pickers working off the books.
He describes to us the violations he encounters when inspecting workers: Their living conditions are precarious, they have no personal protective equipment. This is what pictures of former inspections show. In the last seven years, the Ministry of Labor in Sao Paulo has recorded over 1,300 violations. Mainly among the industry's smaller suppliers, as the prosecutor tells us.
There’s often no place for workers to have a proper meal or even toilets. We also see the mishandling of agrochemicals. Maturana and his colleagues usually carry out inspections on the basis of specific complaints. For a few years now, the number of inspections has been decreasing. What is the reason for this? The inspections are not a priority for politicians, the prosecutor explains. Since the country has been in a severe economic crisis, funds have been cut and there is a lack of personnel And on-site inspections need just that: time, money and personnel.
Also because they can only take place with police protection. We don't conduct inspections without security personnel because we never know the level of hostility we’ll encounter. We often encounter supervisors who are prone to violence and who have numerous workers reporting to them. It is often drummed into them that government inspection is there to take away their jobs instead of improving their conditions.
That’s is why we only go with security. We ask Ibiapaba Netto. What does he know about the conditions on the plantations, especially with independent suppliers? 50,000 people work in the fields every year and I guarantee you that in our fields, in the fields of the industry, the working conditions are state of the art.
And our suppliers are encouraged, motivated and trained to do their best. If someone doesn't play by the rules, that has to be addressed. But violations are the exception, not the rule.
Whether that’s true or not, we can’t say. However, prosecutor José Maturana reports that conditions did not improve during the pandemic. And he describes further problems.
During the last inspection of an orange plantation, we discovered a group of about 37 workers. It was the cold season: some of them were living in apartments without bedding, without adequate mattresses, without protection from the cold. We also witnessed similar housing conditions, but can show them only in part to protect the workers. This is accommodation that companies rent to migrant workers. These images show footage from 2020 by Swiss NGO Public Eye: workers living in cramped quarters, thin, broken mattresses, hardly any furniture.
Partly without protection from the often chilly evening temperatures between June and August in Sao Paulo. The unions too report poor housing conditions. There are no decent beds, no bathroom, no decent place to rest before going to work the next day. The conditions in many houses are terrible. And the next morning they have to get up, without having recovered, to go back to picking oranges in the fields.
Citrus producers Citrosuco, Cutrale and Louis Dreyfus write to inform us that their housing conditions meet the required standards No official figures or information on housing is available for the independent suppliers. Trade unionist Aparecido Bispo is in contact with many workers in the region. He says that despite poor housing or working conditions, many are too afraid to complain or file a lawsuit. The companies keep a record of the workers who complain, and they can forget about being hired again. This practice should be banned! People should not risk being punished for demanding their rights.
Companies blacklisting workers ? can it be true? Our team meets a local lawyer who wants to remain anonymous at all costs for fear of the companies. He knows several workers who are not satisfied. But the fear of possible consequences from filing a complaint is great. He forwards us a voice message from one of his clients. Please, forget about my complaint! We need this work, my family and I can't afford to lose this job! Please excuse me. What can we do? Industry association CitrusBR writes to us: During our research we learned that it’s especially workers on the supplier’s plantations the smaller and independent companies - who are not always well protected.
We are on our way to meet former farmer Irani Biazotti. We don't know what working conditions were like for him in the fields. But he tells us that he, too, was under enormous pressure as a supplier. My name is Irani Biazotti, I worked as an orange farmer for 30 years. All of a sudden I had to give it up and leave everything behind. All I’m left with is sadness and my memories.
On his 60 hectares of land, he farmed oranges, which he sold to Cutrale and Citrosuco, two major citrus exporters. He did not have fixed contracts for the regular purchase of his oranges, he says. The big industry players only bought oranges when the harvest from their own fields was not enough. The purchase price often fluctuated. At times, he says, he had to sell his oranges at absurdly low prices. In the end, he could no longer cover the costs of production and harvesting, and it was costing him too much to maintain his plantation.
For 30 years I worked in the fields with love and dedication, until I was so indebted that I had to give up everything. Which is very sad. Biazotti is 75, and it will take him at least four more years, he calculates, to pay off his debts. He recently joined a class action lawsuit in London against juice giant Cutrale. Represented by the law firm PGMBM, more than 1,500 former farmers are suing for financial compensation. The allegation is that Cutrale was part of a cartel that colluded to push down the purchase price of oranges, bankrupting small farmers.
Cutrale denies the allegations. The company however has already admitted to price fixing once before, in 2016. While filming, we meet a woman who has also filed a lawsuit against one of the big companies.
To protect her identity, we will call her Vitória. She has been working as a picker in the orange fields of Sao Paulo for 27 years, having come here from northeastern Brazil as a child. Her parents wanted to build a better life for themselves. And in the beginning, they were doing just that. For me, orange picking was everything.
I never wanted to stay at home, I always wanted to be on the field. Today I only go because I have to, I need the money. She earns between 180 and 280 euros a month, but says her health is suffering. Since 2018, I’m longer the same. Back then I was healthy, but today I am plagued by headaches, my whole body hurts: the ribs, the back, the knees. I’m in a lot of pain.
A fate she wanted to spare her children. But in order to have enough money to live, her husband also works in the fields, and their 21-year-old daughter recently started too. This is sad it's complicated.
I didn't want this. But we don't have a choice. It's difficult.
I didn't want my children there picking oranges in the field with me. Knowing they might get bitten by a snake or fall off the ladder. They take that risk every day. It's terrifying. She worries that their health will be compromised, too. Since 2018, Vitoria has had to take daily medication for shortness of breath and headaches.
She believes it’s the pesticides in the orange fields that have made her sick. I remember it like it was yesterday. I felt sick on the plantation, and in the afternoon I couldn't work anymore. I went home while my husband continued to work. The next day I couldn't get out of bed.
My whole body was hurting. I went to the doctor and was on sick leave for a week. I needed money. When I asked the company if they would reimburse me, they asked why and I said that I had suffered poisoning. Vitoria explains how pesticides are often sprayed near the workers. This happens in the fields all the time, she says.
Both her former employer and the industry association reject these accusations. This should not happen under any circumstance. So again, what I see here are extreme situations that are absolutely atypical and cannot serve as a reference for common practice in the Brazilian citrus industry.
The Brazilian Ministry of Health calculates that on average, one person dies every 2 days in Brazil from pesticide poisoning. amount of these deaths that can be attributed to orange farming though cannot be estimated. But Vitoria is certain that her symptoms are due to pesticide poisoning. In 2019, she decided to take her case to court.
A step that has not been easy for her. These are big companies, and they are very powerful. I wouldn't recommend anyone to mess with them. I didn't really want to do it.
This is a very small city and news travels fast. It can make it hard to find work. Vitoria’s case was dropped before evidence was even presented. But she received a small amount of compensation.
Her wish for the future is that the workers on the plantations are treated with respect. Trade unionist Aparecido knows other workers who have experienced similar problems. He would like to see the companies regularly check their employees for pesticide poisoning. I would like the companies to address the problem without the need for outside parties to intervene. But the industry won’t, so I think workers should definitely sue and defend themselves. It's not fair to go to work completely healthy and end up poisoned with pesticides in your blood.
According to the industry association, strict guidelines are followed on when and how pesticides are applied to the field. Farming oranges is demanding. And completely eliminating the use of chemicals is not currently possible, says Juliano Ayres, managing director of Fundecitrus.
The research centre was funded by orange farmers and the juice industry in 1977 to help make citrus farming more sustainable. The climate in subtropical areas like Sao Paulo, Florida, Mexico, where it rains a lot, is perfect for citrus farming and for great productivity and quality. But unfortunately it also favors many pests and diseases. Therefore, in certain situations pesticides are needed. According to scientists, the huge monocultures in orange farming also lead to more pests and plant diseases.
Which is why numerous agrochemicals are used. According to Fundecitrus, these do not pose any danger to workers. But the workers who handle the pesticides often lack important expertise, explains the prosecutor, who repeatedly carries out inspections for the Brazilian Ministry of Labor. We encounter the following problems: pesticides are stored incorrectly.
There is often a lack of training in the handling of these poisons. They are improperly distributed and often without protective equipment. In addition, clothing that has been in direct contact is not adequately cleaned. Our investigation takes us to Brussels, where we meet Larissa Mies Bombardi.
She has been researching agrochemical use in Brazil for 12 years. In 2017, she published her findings in her home country. According to the Ministry of Health, 56,000 cases of pesticide poisoning were reported between 2010 and 2019. That's an average of 10 per day, but the ministry calculates that for every case reported, 50 go undetected. That means that we may have 2 million sick and poisoned people.
This is a tragedy. The Brazilian industry says oranges for juice are grown under strict regulations. They say the pesticides used pose no danger to the workers. But whether that is actually the case is hard to verify. According to Bombardi, pesticide poisoning is not always easy to prove. There are agrochemicals that you can't detect in the blood.
Other types of testing need to be done. Often a blood test is not enough. Health professionals are also not always trained to detect pesticides. Many highly toxic pesticides used in Brazil are supplied from countries in the EU.
Although some of them are banned in the EU itself, they are still sold to Brazil. There are 116 pesticides approved for citrus cultivation in Brazil, and over 30 of them are banned in the EU. Yet 10% of these banned chemicals are sold to Brazil by companies in Europe. Fundecitrus disagrees, saying that only pesticides approved in the EU are used in the orange fields. According to Larissa Mies Bombardi, the banned pesticides could cause Parkinson's disease and be carcinogenic, among other things.
But the use of these substances also has consequences in the EU. The pesticides that Europe sells come back to the market: in the fruit, the juice, the coffee, the meat. Europe is one of the biggest consumers of Brazilian products. This is a vicious cycle of poisoning.
In 2018, the European Food Safety Authority examined products imported from Brazil to the EU. About 7% had pesticide residues above the EU's approved limit. In 2019, Larissa Mies Bombardi decided to publish her studies in Europe. As a result, Scandinavia's largest organic products supermarket severed its trade ties with Brazil And Bombardi received threats.
After I launched the English version of the atlas in Europe, the intimidation and threats started. Threatening emails, warnings from colleagues, and a break-in at home: the more time passed, the more she feared for herself and her two sons. In early 2021, Bombardi left Brazil and moved to Belgium. She is now continuing her research in Brussels. Her appeal to the EU Commission: Ethics should come first and foremost above economic interest.
You can't sell something to others that is forbidden in your country. The EU needs to act ethically. Things are changing for Germany in the future. The government is planning to halt exports of pesticides that are not approved in the EU on the basis of protection of human health. Similar measures are also being discussed at the EU level.
In Brazil, Fundecitrus is researching biological pest controllers to reduce the use of pesticides. Among other things, they are breeding a species of wasp that feeds on one of the pests. We produce about 100,000 tamarixia a month and release them in the orange fields in the citrus belt of Sao Paulo.
With its research, Fundecitrus says it has already managed to cut down pesticide use by 50% compared to 20 years ago. But doing without agrochemicals is still unthinkable in Sao Paulo. Is it possible to grow oranges organically here? No. A plant that currently produces 200 kilos of oranges would then only yield 10 kilos. Most of the organic orange juice bought in Germany comes from Mexico, where orange plantations are smaller.
After the US, Germany is the biggest market for orange juice in the world. And the demand for juices with seals of certification is increasing. In addition to the EU organic seal, which focuses on ecological sustainability, seals such as Gepa Fair Plus and the FairTrade mark guarantee high social standards. Sustainability is a topic that the juice industry has been reckoning with for a long time, and it is now often a requirement that products are produced according to sustainable criteria.
Klaus Heitlinger, from the German Fruit Juice Industry Association, represents the companies selling orange juice on the German market. He is aware of the accusations that minimum labor conditions are not observed everywhere. In order for the whole thing to be documented in a traceable way, we decided to certify the orange juices in cooperation with the Brazilian suppliers. As a result, the Rainforest Alliance certification has grown quite a bit as of 2019/2020. Today I would say it's a basic requirement for orange juice. Rainforest Alliance, an NGO operating in 70 countries, awards product seals to plantations that meet certain environmental and social criteria, such as fair working conditions.
It now certifies around half of the juices in Germany, according to industry estimates. In addition to seals, it is also behind initiatives promoting better standards. The new Supply Chain Act, which will take effect starting in 2023, will also force the industry to comply with human rights along its supply chain. But this applies primarily to the direct suppliers of German companies. For the remaining suppliers, it only applies if there are actual indications of a violation. So at the lower end of the supply chain, such as on plantations, where most violations occur, the Supply Chain Act will have very little effect.
Back to Brazil, in Ubirajara. This region is where the majority of oranges are picked for the juice industry. Here we witness where the mechanisms fail. We meet three women who speak openly about working for a supplier without registration. Just like, according to the Ministry of Labor, an estimated quarter of all orange pickers.
It's much better not to be registered. If you're registered, it does have the advantage that you get a medical certificate if you're sick. But if you are not registered, the salary is much higher. You get paid double.
20 cents a bag instead of only 10. Social security, health insurance and pension insurance, which can be important for the future, don't matter to them. The main thing for now is to survive.
It's the only thing we have here. There is no other work in this region. The majority here picks oranges because it's the only job in town. Oranges are all we have left. And if you don't pick oranges, you die of hunger. They know that legal regulations are sometimes disregarded, such as mandatory breaks from work, but they put up with it.
If you are not registered, you are free to decide whether you take a break or not. Isn't it better to take a break because the work is so hard? But then you work less! And if you work less, you earn less! According to the industry association, subcontractors receive regular training and are required to adhere to specific contract clauses. Hiring workers who are not legally registered is strictly forbidden by member companies. Much has improved on the orange plantations in Brazil in recent years.
Seals now set standards. As a result, certified plantations are monitored more regularly. And yet, as the prosecutor from the Ministry of Labor witnesses again and again, the strict rules are constantly broken in order to produce more cheaply.
This year I have done three or four inspections in the state of São Paulo, every time our department was present, the workers were not registered. In order for laws to be respected, the state must act. The more visible and present it is, the fewer violations there will be. In other words, more state controls are needed. But these are not in sight right now.
On Brazil’s plantations, oranges are produced for the world market. A profitable business for the big companies. So the workers don't end up paying the highest price for the orange juice, everyone needs to keep a close eye on things.