Child Labor in Guatemala's Coffee Industry
Many coffee consumers do not recognize what goes into making their morning cup of joe. Coffee is one of the major crops that child workers cultivate across the globe, including Guatemala, where major U.S. companies such as Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Kirkland source their coffee beans. Guatemala is working to reverse the damage the decades-long civil war (1960 to 1996) inflicted upon its children, indigenous population and industries, but the country still needs to do a lot. Here are 10 facts about child labor in Guatemala’s coffee industry.

10 Facts About Child Labor in Guatemala’s Coffee Industry

  1. Guatemala is the ninth biggest coffee exporter in the world. Sharing 2.7 percent of the world’s coffee market, Guatemala is one of the largest coffee exporters in the world. Coffee, along with bananas, sugar and spices, accounts for 40 percent of all agricultural export revenue for the country. Major U.S. companies such as Starbucks, Kirkland and Dunkin Donuts source their coffee beans from Guatemala.
  2. The minimum employment age is 14. Guatemalan law prohibits children under the age of 14 from employment unless they are in extreme circumstances; however, the Guatemalan government has failed to enforce this labor law. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s human rights report in 2018, approximately 1 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are working in Guatemala. Child labor in Guatemala’s coffee industry is more prevalent in rural areas where extreme poverty is more common.
  3. Children as young as 5 years old are working in hazardous conditions. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s report on Guatemala’s labor condition in 2018, child coffee workers were using machetes and other tools that can pose a physical danger. Furthermore, the investigators found that child workers were also mixing and applying pesticides during their work. This is a violation of the International Labor Union’s (ILO) conventions on child labor, as it clearly puts under-aged children in work conditions that can harm their health and development.
  4. Guatemala’s child labor is linked to migrant coffee workers. Coffee harvest in Guatemala depends on a seasonal influx of migrant workers. These migrant workers come from the Guatemalan Highlands. Many migrant workers bring their wives and their children to a coffee farm. In order to increase the family income, children as young as 7 or 8 years old participate in coffee picking. Since these workers are not permanent workers, they usually do not demand year-round wages and benefits. This drives the wage down for coffee harvesters, which can limit access to food, health care, housing and education for their children.        
  5. Many coffee workers are internal migrants. The native population of Guatemala, most of whom are of Mayan descent, make up around 40 percent of the total population of the country. Many are migrant workers and they do not always speak Spanish, leaving them in a vulnerable position when negotiating labor conditions with their employers. Oftentimes, they do not receive payment for their labor, but rather buy food from the plantation owner on credit. As a result, many of these internal migrant families find themselves trapped by debt. Some plantation owners also withhold these families’ identification papers, making it extremely hard for them to leave their employers.
  6. Fluctuating coffee prices have major impacts on the poor coffee farmers and children of Guatemala. While demand for Guatemala’s coffee is increasing, many coffee farmers in Guatemala find themselves in poverty. The World Bank, in its 2019 article about Guatemala’s economy, stated that 48.8 percent of Guatemala’s population lives in poverty. When coffee prices rise, poor coffee worker families will withdraw their children from school to have them work as an extra field hand, causing an increase in child labor in Guatemala’s coffee industry. When coffee prices fall, however, these families’ income decreases, which can also prevent their children from attending school.
  7. Children work under the watch of armed guards. Danwatch’s 2016 exposé documented migrant workers and their children picking coffee under the watch of armed guards. Under these kinds of conditions, it is not surprising that organizing a labor union is a major challenge for these workers. Labor union representatives of Guatemala can sometimes become the target of violence, armed attacks and even assassination. According to data from the International Trade Union Confederation, people murdered more than 53 union representatives between 2007 and 2013. 
  8. Major companies, such as Starbucks, are working with multiple certification organizations to produce ethically sourced coffee. Since 2004, Starbucks has complied with C.A.F.E (Coffee And Farmer Equity) Practices by working with organizations such as the Fair Trade U.S.A., Fairtrade International, Rainforest Alliance and Utz. According to Conservation International’s (CI) 2018 report on the Starbucks C.A.F.E Practices from 2011 to 2015, 100 percent of the participating farms did not use children in their labor force. Furthermore, 100 percent of the participating farms ensured that children on the farm would have access to school education.
  9. The Guatemalan government has aid programs to alleviate child labor. According to the report on child labor and forced labor that the U.S. Department of Labor published in 2018, the Guatemalan government is sponsoring multiple programs that will alleviate child labor. One of these programs is the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education and Health Program (Mi Bono Seguro), which provides financial assistance to families with children as long as their children’s attendance to school is satisfactory. 
  10. Many nongovernment organizations are working to alleviate poverty for Guatemalan coffee workers. One organization, Pueblo a Pueblo, provides tools, training and support to the impoverished coffee farmers in Guatemala. One of the ways Pueblo a Pueblo does this is by teaching beekeeping to Guatemalan coffee farmers during the non-harvesting season of the year. The organization also assists Guatemalan coffee farmers impacted by the recent coffee rust epidemic. Watch this documentary for more information on Pueblo a Pueblo’s work. 

It can be easy for one to forget that a common food item, such as coffee, has a human cost in producing it. Stemming from the country’s civil war, child labor deeply links to the instability in Guatemala’s economy and government. When coffee farmers struggle to make ends meet, the danger of exploitation and violence increases for many poor coffee pickers and their children. These 10 facts about child labor in Guatemala’s coffee industry show, however, that there are many people and organizations that are working to assist children and coffee workers in Guatemala. Through financial assistance, education and training in other agricultural disciplines, a better future awaits the children of Guatemala.  

 – YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr