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A storm in a coffee cup

Stuart White

Way back in 1946 the late, great Frank Sinatra sang a song called The Coffee song, which went like this:

Way down among Brazilians
 Coffee beans grow by the billions
 So they've got to find those extra cups to fill
 They've got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil

There are a number of other versus with very witty lyrics and worth a listen if you’ve never heard the song before;  and of course  no guesses that coffee was a major crop and export item in Brazil back  then.   Interestingly, 70 years on not much has changed and they still have an awful lot of coffee in that South American country.

What brought the song to mind was two seemingly-unrelated items on the online version of the UK Daily Mail this week.  The first was an apparently innocuous comparison of Starbucks’ prices in different parts of the world for what Americans like to call ‘a cup of Joe’.  

Unsurprisingly Brazil is by far the cheapest cup of what Starbucks calls a ‘grande latte’ – literally large milk, or coffee with milk’, coming in at a modest $1.49, or about P16.  Hop across to nearby Peru and the price about doubles to $2.89 or P32.  In Cairo, Manila, Santiago & Buenos Aires and it’s just a fraction more, at an average of P33.  Thereafter the price rises steadily to a maximum of P77 in Zurich, though it’s not much cheaper in Cancun, Mexico at P66, even though Mexico and Brazil aren’t that far apart geographically.  And even more curiously, you’ll have to fork out (or should that be ‘spoon out’?) P55 in Miami, Florida, even though Starbucks is a US-based company.  But the all-time record for the most expensive coffee order ever in the chain goes to a Florida resident, albeit a self-professed connoisseur, who ordered a 101-shot latte costing $83.75 or P920, thereby smashing the world drinks records in 2014 for the biggest and most expensive Starbucks drink.

Juxtaposed with this story was another on the issue of slave labour in the Brazilian coffee industry.  An investigation by media and research centre Danwatch found that slave-like conditions were still widespread across Brazil's coffee-producing industry.  The Denmark-based group claimed workers were trafficked for little or no pay, forced to live on rubbish heaps and made to drink water alongside animals. Danwatch says workers are often trapped in 'debt bondage', not given contracts or protective equipment and forced to live in accommodation without mattresses, contravening Brazilian and international law.  The group claims Brazilian workers earn just $2 (P22) to fill a 60-litre sack of coffee, representing just two per cent of the retail price.

Julie Hjerl Hansen, lead researcher on the Danwatch investigation said: “When the companies don't even know what plantations they're buying from, I think the problem is much bigger than what we've seen here – it's just the tip of the iceberg.”

And it emerged that two of the world's biggest coffee companies have admitted their beans may have been harvested on the same plantations in Brazil.
Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts, which together account for 40 per cent of the global market, said they could not rule out human rights abuses in their supply chain because they don't know the names of all the plantations that grow their coffee.  They sometimes buy from the middlemen in a muddled supply chain, so the precise origin is unclear.  Nestlé did confirm that it bought coffee from two plantations where workers were freed from slave-like conditions by Brazilian authorities last July.  However both companies were quick to point out that they took Danwatch's allegations seriously.

Nestlé said: “We do not tolerate violations of labour rights and have strongly maintained that forced labour has no place in our supply chain. Unfortunately, forced labour is an endemic problem in Brazil and no company sourcing coffee and other ingredients from the country can fully guarantee that it has completely removed forced labour practices or human rights abuses.”
Jacobs Douwe Egberts said: “We are committed to working with governments, non-governmental organisations, suppliers, farmer cooperatives and the entire coffee supply chain to improve the working conditions for coffee farmers throughout the world.  We currently support 15 such programmes in nine countries, including Brazil.”

But of course the guilt-by-association has a trickle-down effect to the end-user.  The Danwatch report also cautioned ordinary coffee consumers, saying “This means that when you buy coffee in the supermarket, you risk taking home beans that were picked by people whose accommodation lack access to clean drinking water or by workers who are caught in a debt spiral that makes it practically impossible for them to leave the coffee plantation.”

Something to think about when you next take your morning caffeine shot.  If it wasn’t such a serious subject I might joke that it is grounds for objection.  But that would definitely be in bad taste.

STUART WHITE is the Managing Director of HRMC

Something to think about when you next take your morning caffeine shot.

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Export Processing Zones: How to Get SEZA to Sizzle

23rd September 2020
Export Processing Zone (EPZ) factory in Kenya

In 2005, the Business & Economic Advisory Council (BEAC) pitched the idea of the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to the Mogae Administration.

It took five years before the SEZ policy was formulated, another five years before the relevant law was enacted, and a full three years before the Special Economic Zones Authority (SEZA) became operational.

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Egypt Bagged Again

23rd September 2020

… courtesy of infiltration stratagem by Jehovah-Enlil’s clan

With the passing of Joshua’s generation, General Atiku, the promised peace and prosperity of a land flowing with milk and honey disappeared, giving way to chaos and confusion.

Maybe Joshua himself was to blame for this shambolic state of affairs. He had failed to mentor a successor in the manner Moses had mentored him. He had left the nation without a central government or a human head of state but as a confederacy of twelve independent tribes without any unifying force except their Anunnaki gods.

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23rd September 2020

If I say the word ‘robot’ to you,  I can guess what would immediately spring to mind –  a cute little Android or animal-like creature with human or pet animal characteristics and a ‘heart’, that is to say to say a battery, of gold, the sort we’ve all seen in various movies and  tv shows.  Think R2D2 or 3CPO in Star Wars, Wall-E in the movie of the same name,  Sonny in I Robot, loveable rogue Bender in Futurama,  Johnny 5 in Short Circuit…

Of course there are the evil ones too, the sort that want to rise up and eliminate us  inferior humans – Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in The Terminator,  Box in Logan’s Run,  Police robots in Elysium and  Otomo in Robocop.

And that’s to name but a few.  As a general rule of thumb, the closer the robot is to human form, the more dangerous it is and of course the ultimate threat in any Sci-Fi movie is that the robots will turn the tables and become the masters, not the mechanical slaves.  And whilst we are in reality a long way from robotic domination, there are an increasing number of examples of  robotics in the workplace.

ROBOT BLOODHOUNDS Sometimes by the time that one of us smells something the damage has already begun – the smell of burning rubber or even worse, the smell of deadly gas. Thank goodness for a robot capable of quickly detecting and analyzing a smell from our very own footprint.

A*Library Bot The A*Star (Singapore) developed library bot which when books are equipped with RFID location chips, can scan shelves quickly seeking out-of-place titles.  It manoeuvres with ease around corners, enhances the sorting and searching of books, and can self-navigate the library facility during non-open hours.

DRUG-COMPOUNDING ROBOT Automated medicine distribution system, connected to the hospital prescription system. It’s goal? To manipulate a large variety of objects (i.e.: drug vials, syringes, and IV bags) normally used in the manual process of drugs compounding to facilitate stronger standardisation, create higher levels of patient safety, and lower the risk of hospital staff exposed to toxic substances.

AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY ROBOTS Applications include screw-driving, assembling, painting, trimming/cutting, pouring hazardous substances, labelling, welding, handling, quality control applications as well as tasks that require extreme precision,

AGRICULTURAL ROBOTS Ecrobotix, a Swiss technology firm has a solar-controlled ‘bot that not only can identify weeds but thereafter can treat them. Naio Technologies based in southwestern France has developed a robot with the ability to weed, hoe, and assist during harvesting. Energid Technologies has developed a citrus picking system that retrieves one piece of fruit every 2-3 seconds and Spain-based Agrobot has taken the treachery out of strawberry picking. Meanwhile, Blue River Technology has developed the LettuceBot2 that attaches itself to a tractor to thin out lettuce fields as well as prevent herbicide-resistant weeds. And that’s only scratching the finely-tilled soil.

INDUSTRIAL FLOOR SCRUBBERS The Global Automatic Floor Scrubber Machine boasts a 1.6HP motor that offers 113″ water lift, 180 RPM and a coverage rate of 17,000 sq. ft. per hour

These examples all come from the aptly-named site    because while these functions are labour-saving and ripe for automation, the increasing use of artificial intelligence in the workplace will undoubtedly lead to increasing reliance on machines and a resulting swathe of human redundancies in a broad spectrum of industries and services.

This process has been greatly boosted by the global pandemic due to a combination of a workforce on furlough, whether by decree or by choice, and the obvious advantages of using virus-free machines – I don’t think computer viruses count!  For example, it was suggested recently that their use might have a beneficial effect in care homes for the elderly, solving short staffing issues and cheering up the old folks with the novelty of having their tea, coffee and medicines delivered by glorified model cars.  It’s a theory, at any rate.

Already, customers at the South-Korean  fast-food chain No Brand Burger can avoid any interaction with a human server during the pandemic.  The chain is using robots to take orders, prepare food and bring meals out to diners.  Customers order and pay via touchscreen, then their request is sent to the kitchen where a cooking machine heats up the buns and patties. When it’s ready, a robot ‘waiter’ brings out their takeout bag.   

‘This is the first time I’ve actually seen such robots, so they are really amazing and fun,’ Shin Hyun Soo, an office worker at No Brand in Seoul for the first time, told the AP. 

Human workers add toppings to the burgers and wrap them up in takeout bags before passing them over to yellow-and-black serving robots, which have been compared to Minions. 

Also in Korea, the Italian restaurant chain Mad for Garlic is using serving robots even for sit-down customers. Using 3D space mapping and other technology, the electronic ‘waiter,’ known as Aglio Kim, navigates between tables with up to five orders.  Mad for Garlic manager Lee Young-ho said kids especially like the robots, which can carry up to 66lbs in their trays.

These catering robots look nothing like their human counterparts – in fact they are nothing more than glorified food trolleys so using our thumb rule from the movies, mankind is safe from imminent takeover but clearly  Korean hospitality sector workers’ jobs are not.

And right there is the dichotomy – replacement by stealth.  Remote-controlled robotic waiters and waitresses don’t need to be paid, they don’t go on strike and they don’t spread disease so it’s a sure bet their army is already on the march.

But there may be more redundancies on the way as well.  Have you noticed how AI designers have an inability to use words of more than one syllable?  So ‘robot’ has become ‘bot’ and ‘android’ simply ‘droid?  Well, guys, if you continue to build machines ultimately smarter than yourselves you ‘rons  may find yourself surplus to requirements too – that’s ‘moron’ to us polysyllabic humans”!

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