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Labor Exploitation in Coffee
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.

Global Trouble

The majority of coffee consumption happens in industrialized nations, with the United States, Germany and France as the largest importers. Conversely, more than 90 percent of coffee exports come from third-world 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 percent, but sometimes as low as 1 to 3 percent – 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.

Farmers’ Reality

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: $3.00 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 percent 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 5000 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

Photo: Flickr

 

Oxfam Fair Trade
Coffee is the second most-traded commodity and one of the most consumed drinks around the world. The consumption of coffee is a universal business within its own, for its demand is incredibly high worldwide. Drinking coffee has become almost second nature to many who can afford it. American author and journalist, Sarah Vowell, says that she realized that drinking a mocha, although seemingly trivial, was in fact “to gulp down the entire history of the New World.” She continues on to say that the modern mocha is nothing less than a “bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top.”

Taken into consideration how big of a role coffee plays in people’s lives today, one would think that people would know where their coffee was coming from and what kind of conditions it was produced in. However, the truth is to the contrary because many people have no idea what conditions coffee producers undergo. Approximately 25 million farmers depend on coffee production/sales to make their living, and many of them live in poverty. The coffee market is prone to severe fluctuations due to changes in climate which in turn affect the growth patterns of coffee plants. Due to the longevity of the growth of coffee plants, producers cannot react quickly to changes in coffee demand. Thus, this is where smart consumers can help poor people, and in particular, coffee producers.

As smart informed consumers, people can buy certified fair trade coffee which basically means that farmers and coffee producers are paid a fair and stable price regardless of changing conditions. A recent Oxfam Australia survey reports that more than 85% of consumers want more fair trade products in their supermarkets, and 60% believe that their consumer decisions can make a difference in the lives of producers and farmers in less-developed countries. Marcial Valladolid, from CACVRA, which is a small producer organization in Peru, expressed how coffee cultivation used to disappoint him because the money he made was not remotely close to cover the cost of his coffee production. CACVRA uses its fair trade premium to “support and improve organic cultivation and certification.” By joining this cooperative, Marcel is content that he was able to receive some profit, and he is hopeful for a future with more fair trade.

It is no wonder that coffee was once described by Neil Gaiman as “sweet as sin,” taking into account all the producers and farmers horribly affected by our enjoyment of their produce. Majority of coffee producers live in developing countries including Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Mexico. Luckily, our enjoyment can come as a better price as the conditions can change because certified fair trade products are becoming increasingly available and accessible through independent grocers, major supermarkets, and retail stores. Thus, making the switch to becoming a smart consumer could not be any easier today. Make the switch today and change people’s lives.

– Leen Abdallah

Sources: AU News, Good Reads
Photo: Google, Google