workers in matagalpa

Farm Workers

Making progress on the farmworker issue in coffee

7 Mar , 2016  

When I began working on farmworker issues in coffee 6 years ago, I encountered significant resistance to this issue from industry and people working with NGOs supporting smallholders in coffee.  It is exciting to see how, with the support of several allies along the way, the situation of farmworkers in coffee is receiving significant attention from media, industry and government.


The U.S. government recently closed an 85 year-old loophole that allowed companies to import goods produced by slave or forced labor.  This may have implications in the coffee trade.  While a ‘learning by doing’ process over the next months will provide more clarity on the specific effects on trade, it is clear there will be more scrutiny on this issue and that North American companies will be advised to pay more attention to the labor practices on coffee farms.


Last week, investigative journalists at the European center Danwatch published a report on slavery-like working conditions in coffee farms in Brazil.  Although the report seems to generalize practices that in reality are not that common in Brazil, their description of working and living conditions in coffee farms should alarm any coffee company that does not implement proper due diligence about working conditions in its supply chain.  Sadly, this is the large majority of coffee companies. The Danwatch report is a must-read for anyone working in coffee, and it should touch the hearts and minds of coffee people, including companies and NGOs who have not been making enough investments in farmworkers issues.  In addition to the very important information that the Danwatch report shared, there are two major implications for the coffee industry:


  • If this happens in Brazil, you bet your coffee this is happening all over the coffee world. Brazil has the strongest labor laws and conditions for coffee workers of anywhere in the world (including the US, by the way).  It also has a system in place to implement those laws.  Brazil is actually an example to the coffee world.  We learn about these conditions (which are fortunately exceptional in Brazil) because there are ways for workers or NGOs to denounce these conditions in Brazil, for the government to conduct inspections and free workers in tough conditions. Brazil has systems of transparency in place that allows us to learn about all of this.  If anything we should be saying, thanks Brazil for leading the way and helping us open our collective eyes to the situation of workers in coffee!


  • This is not just a problem of Nestle, as mentioned in the Danwatch report. This is a problem of coffee.  The reality is that most coffee companies (large or small, specialty or mainstream) do not have strong processes to secure that working or living conditions that should horrify us are not present in their supply chains


So, what can we do about this as an industry?  The issue of farmworkers has become one of the three main areas of focus for the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) Sustainability Council[1].  The Council is working on a document that explores this issue, shows the business case for the coffee industry to address it, and recommends specific actions for industry to take.  The Council is currently conducting workshops in Colombia and Nicaragua with farmers and workers to learn more about this topic, and it plans to share these learning over the next couple of months.  In addition, the Council will host a panel at the SCAA expo in April to discuss this issue with industry, farmers, and workers.  In this way, the SCAA is leading with the creation of content relevant to this topic, convening diverse stakeholders to discuss and learn more about it, and sharing broad recommendations for the industry to get more involved.  It will be up to industry and NGO’s to finally begin to take action.


I feel encouraged that the North American coffee industry will have (and will chose) to pay more attention to the situation of workers in coffee and will have more tools available to do something about it.  This will hopefully drive NGO’s to act too, and to include a farmworker lens to their important work in coffee communities.  Collectively, we need to continue working to build a more sustainable coffee industry that includes the most vulnerable actors in coffee.


[1] The author is a member of the SCAA Sustainability Council

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