Bitter Origins: Labor Exploitation in Coffee Production
Around 500 billion cups of coffee are consumed around the world in a typical year, an equivalent of 2.25 billion cups per day. The global coffee market was worth $83 billion USD in 2017 and was projected to rise steadily. Despite coffee’s popularity in modern life, few coffee drinkers realize the human cost to their caffeine fix. From inhumane working conditions to child labor and human trafficking, labor exploitation in coffee production is a bitter reality unbeknownst to consumers.
The majority of coffee consumption happens in industrialized nations, with the United States, Germany and France as the largest importers. Conversely, more than 90% of coffee exports come from developing countries such as Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia and Mexico. Evidence suggests the presence of child labor and/or labor exploitation in coffee production in all of the above countries, in addition to many others like Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic and Uganda, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Labor.
From beans to brewing, coffee production is a multipart process that involves many intermediary stages before the final products reach retail stores. This laborious process means that it is extremely difficult for coffee retailers to track the origins of their coffee and ensure ethical labor practices at the source. It also means that only a small fraction – often 7% to 10%, but sometimes as low as 1% to 3% – of the retail price reaches the hands of coffee farmers. Fluctuations in coffee prices often result in farmers not earning a living wage, which jeopardizes the survival and health of their families.
Growing coffee requires intensive manual work such as picking, sorting, pruning, weeding, spraying, fertilizing and transporting products. Plantation workers often toil under intense heat for up to 10 hours a day, and many face debt bondage and serious health risks due to exposure to dangerous agrochemicals. In Guatemala, coffee pickers often receive a daily quota of 45 kilograms just to earn the minimum wage: $3 a day. To meet this minimum demand, parents often pull their children out of school to work with them. This pattern of behavior jeopardizes children’s health and education in underdeveloped rural areas, where they already experience significant barriers and setbacks.
Forced labor is widely reported in coffee-growing regions in Guatemala and Côte d’Ivoire. Workers suffer physical violence as well as threats of loss of work, wages, or food if they fail to perform at a certain – often unreasonable – standard. Many work without a contract, timely payment, protective gear, or appropriate medical care. Migrants are especially vulnerable since many cannot afford to return home and have to rely on plantation work to survive.
Child Labor and Exploitation
About 20% of children in coffee-growing countries fall victim to labor exploitation in coffee cultivation. Facing demanding quotas, workers often bring their children to help in the field in order to earn a living wage. The U.S. Department of Labor reports an estimated 34,131 children laborers growing coffee in Vietnam, 12,526 of which are under the age of 15. The same report finds almost 5,000 children under 14 working on coffee plantations in Brazil, often without a contract or protective equipment. In Côte d’Ivoire, children are subject to human trafficking and forced labor. Children are forcibly transported to coffee plantations from nearby countries including Benin, Mali, Togo and Burkina Faso and recruited to work for little or no pay, often for three or four years until they could return home. Threats of violence and withheld payments prevent them from leaving the farms, and many suffer from denial of food and sick leave.
Many South American countries have launched extensive and effective social programs and policies to address child labor and labor exploitation in coffee farms. In 2018, Colombia made significant advancements in efforts to tackle child labor through its campaign Working is Not a Child’s Task, the National Policy on Childhood and Adolescence, and the Center for the Crime of Trafficking in Persons. The Brazilian government funded and participated in programs that target child labor, such as the #StopChildLabor (#ChegaDeTrabalhoInfantil) Campaign and the Living Together and Strengthening Links Program (Serviço de Convivência e Fortalecimento de Vínculo).
The Fair Trade Movement
In the past decade, labor exploitation in coffee cultivation has garnered attention worldwide. As a result, many socially aware businesses have committed to a fair trade approach that promotes better profits for farmers and more sustainability in farming practices. Among other objectives, the fair trade movement works to give farmers a higher price for their coffee under conditions that strictly prohibit the use of exploitative practices. Ethically certified coffee brands such as Equal Exchange and Cafedirect have risen in popularity as consumers become more aware of labor exploitation issues. Certification schemes such as Fairtrade International, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified bring value to socially conscious businesses and encourage trading practices that empower smallholder farmers.
– Alice Nguyen