Brazil: Heineken Accused To Support ‘Slavery-Like Conditions’

Heineken-owned brewery Cervejarias Kaiser Brasil has been included in the Brazilian government's "Dirty List" of companies associated with labor conditions akin to slavery. The revelation, reported by Reuters on Friday, highlights the concerning labor practices within the supply chain of one of the world's leading beverage conglomerates.

Kaiser's placement on the list stems from its subcontracting of Sider, a trucking company responsible for beer deliveries in the state of Sao Paulo. A March 2021 inspection revealed that 23 drivers employed by Sider, comprising 22 Venezuelans and one Haitian, were subjected to "slavery-like conditions." These conditions included grueling workdays lasting up to 18 hours without paid time off. Promised lodging was not provided to the workers, forcing many to sleep in their trucks. Furthermore, access to drinking water was restricted, and additional fees and discounts related to their work were imposed on the drivers, for example, for acquiring company shirts and boots for their work and for transcribing their foreign driver's licenses.

"We were treated like dogs, like animals. I lived in my truck for 11 months, in a space where I could lie down and sleep, and that was it," said one of the workers after his rescue.

The "Dirty List," officially known as the Register of Employers (Cadastro de Empregadores), is published biannually by the Government of Brazil. Companies featured on this list are prohibited from obtaining credit from state-owned banks and may face difficulties securing credit from select private banks. Violators remain on the list for two years unless they cease forced labor practices and settle all outstanding wages.

Before being listed, employers have the opportunity to enter into court orders or Terms of Adjustment in Conduct (TAC), obliging them to settle wage debts and adopt preventative measures. Employers who fail to comply with these arrangements are added to the list.

Interestingly, the inspection revealed that Sider was not only subcontracted by Cervejarias Kaiser Brasil (Heineken) but also by Ambev, a subsidiary of the world's largest brewing group, AB InBev. Under Brazilian law, both Heineken and Ambev share responsibility for ensuring that their subcontractors adhere to labor regulations. Consequently, both multinational corporations were being held accountable for their involvement in the exploitation of workers under slave-like conditions. They had been instructed to pay BRL 657,270 (USD 125,000) in compensation for the moral damages incurred by the affected employees.

The inspection report from 2021 pointed out that both companies demonstrated "willful blindness" by disregarding their obligation to verify their subcontractor's compliance with labor laws, all in the pursuit of profit at the expense of labor protection regulations.

It's noteworthy that Ambev appears to have successfully removed itself from the "Dirty List" after fully compensating the affected drivers. In a 2021 statement, Ambev expressed its immediate response to the situation, ensuring that the drivers were accommodated in a hotel, received necessary support, and were offered options for returning home or having their families brought to them. The company also committed to reviewing its monitoring and support processes for subcontractors to prevent such incidents from happening again.

In contrast, Heineken's response showed no remorse but attempted to explain that Heineken had already all measures in place to prevent such occurrences. The brewer emphasized that all its suppliers undergo a rigorous selection process and sign a Code of Conduct committing to full compliance with labor and human rights legislation. Additionally, Heineken noted that it had a "Carrier Excellence Program" in place since 2015, conducting periodic audits to assess suppliers in areas such as safety, vehicle maintenance, sustainability, and risk management.

After the news from Friday, Heineken stated that "regarding the inclusion of Cervejarias Kaiser ... on the list, we are actively working to resolve the issue," Reuters reported.

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