Tastes Like Freedom: How Manumit, a UK Based Beanery, Fights Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
"Manumit is creating freedom for those that haven’t tasted it, and they happen to roast delicious coffee beans while they are at it."
Nestled within an industrial estate in the bustling capital city of Cardiff lies a little Welsh coffee roastery with a big heart. ‘Manumit,’ a middle English word meaning “to set slaves free,” finds its modern manifestation in Manumit Coffee Roastery. Within its doors rests a large Diedrich coffee roaster that churns out bold and mellow roasts at the hands of survivors of modern slavery– hands that are not bound to be there, as they were in the past, but hands that want to work, are trained to work, and are paid to work.
The dream started with Manumit’s founder and co-director, Dai Hankey, a local Welsh father of four after finding the lack of resources survivors had to ease themselves back into a workplace following years of labor that had been forced upon them. Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking have gained media attention on and off for years with very little political and systemic reform behind them. It is estimated that over 40 million people around the world are slaves, including men, women, and children.
What is Modern Slavery? Modern slavery originates within the disparate wealth gap, when people trapped in poverty become open to exploitation. Employers are often physically or sexually abusive, pay them little if at all, take away their passports, threaten deportation, or force victims into debt. This isn’t just found in third-world countries–there were 5,144 cases reported in the UK in 2019 and over 400,000 suspected victims living in the US in farms, factories, nail salons, and even car washes.
It is daunting for a survivor to think of being employed in full-time work. Being told what to do, easily growing tired, forced social interaction, and high expectations could prove to be both triggering and unbearable. Manumit’s goal is to be a pipeline to further employment, and thus independent success for survivors.
Initially, Hankey had thought of opening a coffee shop, but explained to me why both he and his business partners decided to go with roasting beans, instead of brewing them. “A coffee shop would be a socially demanding place to be as a survivor of modern slavery.” With people coming in and out all day long, some of whom could possibly be a former pimp or client, there could be many reminders of trauma from a survivor’s past. A coffee roastery, on the other hand, can be remote, even windowless, to avoid the fear of being found by former exploiters. If a survivor was trained to roast coffee, they would have a qualification that can follow them around the world, giving them a job opportunity wherever they go.
One of Manumit’s core values is to ensure that the coffee they roast is ethically supplied. To do this, the co-director, Nick Davies, visits one of their suppliers in Uganda each year to check that the farmers are getting paid fair prices from the processing plants (where the cherry-like coffee beans are husked and dried), and that processing plants are not exploiting their locally-based employees. Any other sources of coffee are researched meticulously so their coffee beans stay free of exploitation. It would be incredibly easy to buy good coffee for a cheap price and make a larger profit, but Manumit is committed to making sure that their coffee is not at all exploitative.
The day to day of running of Manumit is unique from other roasteries. They are open three days a week, provide flexible working times to employees to roast, grind, weigh, and package the beans. Over a span of three years, Manumit has employed ten survivors, both men and women, from around the world. While roasting coffee and making a profit is important, Manumit’s primary goal is to create an environment where exploited individuals can start their journey to healing through a compassionate workplace. Ruined batches of beans. Arguments amongst individuals. Not showing up to work on time. All are dealt with through a lens of grace and patience. At Manumit, people come first, products second.
Hankey told me a story of one employee, Eva, who was asked to get something done while working. “No,” she firmly replied. In a normal workplace, she would experience disciplinary action.
But Manumit isn’t a normal workplace.
“Men have always told her what to do and she must comply,” Hankey explained to me. “But she is starting to rebuild her personal agency.” Authority takes on a new meaning in Manumit, where there is no room for a ‘do this, do that because I said so’ ethos, rather, boss and employee relations work on a two way street in order for both of them to learn and guide each other towards healing. Eva worked for Manumit for two years. Now, she works as a caretaker for the elderly, often defending her reigning title of ‘Employee of the Month.’ Manumit helped her gain back her wings. Now, look at how she flies.
Since Manumit can’t employ endless amounts of people, they always offer the opportunity to train as a Barista. Individual sponsors contribute for an individual to have the training, giving them a globally recognized qualification that will get them a job both in the UK or abroad.
Manumit doesn’t want to just help those they employ, they want to cut off the root of modern slavery before it victimizes more people. They give back to a local and global community of organizations that fight modern slavery and human trafficking. Both owners, Hankey and Davies, don’t take a penny from Manumit. All profits are used to pay staff, cover costs, and invest into organizations, such as International Justice Mission. As long as the business continues to bring in profit, Manumit will keep giving out whatever comes in.
Running a business with vulnerable employees may not be straightforward. There are awkward conversations, extra precautions, and special considerations that must be made. But Manumit will keep ethically roasting beans, employing survivors, and giving of its profits so that survivors of modern slavery can taste freedom.
One of Manumit's employees, Jessica, was given a bike to help her commute to work. When she was asked what it was like to ride a bike to work, she simply replied, “freedom.” Manumit is creating freedom for those that haven’t tasted it, and they happen to roast delicious coffee beans while they are at it.
The phrase “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is often thrown around and, with the abundance of exploited labor put into all the things we own from our iPhones to our Starbucks Pumpkin Spice lattes, it is easy to believe, to throw our hands up in the air at the impossibility of sustainable living. Manumit gives hope back to those the capitalist system denigrates as constructs of labor, and it gives me hope that while it may be too late to remove monetary systems from our lives, it’s never too late to (re)envision how businesses can play a healing role in them.
Meet the Family
Lauren is an American freelance writer, now living in Wales. She writes about all things social justice at her newsletter, Letters from Lauren.