Sustainable coffee isn’t cheap – the cost for farmworkers

Coffee pickers, migrant workers, and farmworkers, in general, may be the most vulnerable groups involved in coffee production; however, they have traditionally not been included in the coffee industry’s sustainability efforts.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor discovered widespread labor violations in coffee farms in Hawaii.  Violations included “failures to pay workers minimum wage and overtime, exploiting migrant workers, illegally hiring coffee pickers as independent contractors, and exploiting children as young as 5 years old to pick coffee cherries.”  This happened here, in the U.S.

Over the last couple of years, I have visited coffee farms all over the world in order to meet with coffee pickers and other farmworkers interested in participating in Fair Trade.  The biggest challenges many of these workers have identified include:

-          Housing conditions

On several farms, especially in Central America, migrant workers face precarious housing conditions when they live on coffee farms with their families during harvest.  There are many large, one-room warehouse-type constructions where 40-60 farmworkers and their families live with little access to mattresses, blankets, privacy or security.   Workers often have to use limited number of latrines or the coffee fields as toilets and must shower in the nearby rivers.  Privacy, safety/security, and sanitation are not the norm for migrant workers’ housing during the harvest.  Many workers I have talked to in Central America and Colombia identified housing conditions as the most important issue they would like to see improved.

Farmworker housing in Central America - men, women and children will live here for 2-3 months during the coffee harvest

Farmworker housing in Central America – men, women and children will live here for 2-3 months during the coffee harvest

-          Working conditions

Farmworkers commonly face unsafe working conditions in coffee fields. For example, not having the right protection equipment for work is very common for farmworkers, especially outside of Brazil.  Having to bring your own rain boots, improvised ponchos (using plastic bags), and even your own machetes is very common.  In coffee fields where you can find snakes, spiders or fire ants in many places, not having the right equipment can be a tremendous hazard for workers.  In addition, not having the adequate training and protection when applying pesticides is a major challenge for farmworkers.  I visited a coffee farm in Brazil where workers had been properly trained in pesticide application and had all the right equipment.  A few of these workers told me that applying pesticides was the worst part of the job.  Even when you have the right training and equipment, pesticide application involves significant risks to the workers’ health.  Not having the necessary individual protection equipment and training creates very hazardous situations for farmworkers in coffee.

-          Lack of contracts / low wages

In many countries, workers do not have a signed contract they can use to make sure they receive the right payment for their labor.  This leaves the door open to employers to take advantage of workers.  Low wages are also a big problem in many countries.  During the harvest, coffee pickers get paid for how much coffee they pick.  Coffee pickers can make as little as 2-3 dollars per day in places such as Nicaragua (even though the minimum wage is, in theory, close to US$6).  PROMECAFE estimates that, due to leaf rust problems that generated lower coffee production, more than 370,000 coffee jobs were lost in the last harvest in several countries in Central America and the Caribbean, as fewer people were needed to harvest coffee.  This number could double for the harvest beginning in December of this year.  Lower demand for coffee pickers due to coffee leaf rust may increase the migration of workers to cities and to other countries looking for jobs.

-          Children in the fields

All over the world in coffee countries, children working on the farm during harvest is unfortunately a common occurrence.  The ENTERATE project and the International Initiative to End Child Labor report that “on coffee plantations [in Nicaragua], child and adolescent workers have very little voice, are provided with little or no compensation, and face a range of other rights violations.”  In particular, “during harvesting season, working children represent an abundant and easily exploited source of cheap labor and contribute to the decline of wages. To meet a daily production quota in order to receive their meager wages, workers on some farms are forced to bring their children to work with them”.  According to Oxfam, in Kenya, it is estimated that 30% of the coffee pickers serving plantations are below the age of 15.

The solution to these issues needs to involve the coffee industry and consumers. Producing sustainable coffee is not cheap.  We all need to be part of the solution.  For coffee farmers, improving these issues necessitates significant investments.  Many of the farmers who have allowed me to learn from the working conditions of farmworkers on their farms want to improve these conditions; however, currently low coffee prices create an additional obstacle for those willing to do so.

Over the next months, I will be gathering much more information from coffee farmworkers to understand how Fair Trade could play a role in improving their situations and their communities.  I hope this helps to inform alternatives to the existing situation of farmworkers in coffee and to bring awareness of this important issue to the coffee industry and consumers.

3 thoughts

  1. Pingback: Beans | Cape Town to Nairobi Overland

  2. Pingback: Fresh Press Vol.8: Empowering Coffee Farmers |

  3. Pingback: “we need to educate the coffee industry” | coffee gente - the people in coffee

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