Coffee Farm Workers try their first latte

Farm Workers,Voices

The Voice of Farm Workers in Coffee – Loud and Clear at SCAA

1 May , 2014  

Today, International Labor Day, this post is in honor of all those hard working people whose labor allows us to enjoy our cups of coffee everyday: farm workers.  


Last week, I visited the original Starbucks store near Pike Place Market with four coffee farm workers from Brazil and Nicaragua: Norman, Erwin, Marcos and Elio. They were visiting Seattle to participate in the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) show.  At the store, we saw bags of coffee from all over the world, and pictures of smiling farmers. We tasted coffees from Zambia, Peru, and Indonesia and saw how the Clover machine works.  The workers enjoyed and reflected on the experience.  Norman from Nicaragua told us: “It makes me happy that so many people are enjoying coffee, the product of our work.  But it makes me sad that this cup of coffee costs as much as I make in one day.  I wish that more of this value would go back to farm workers and our communities”.

Last week, over 11,000 people from all over the world gathered in Seattle to learn from each other, see the new coffee equipment and innovations, and meet farmers, exporters, importers, roasters and the many others who are part of the specialty coffee industry.  A primary focus of this show for me was the work that myself and others have been doing alongside coffee farm workers: the millions of people who are hired to work the coffee fields – land that they do not own – and harvest the coffee cherries of others every year all over the world.  This group is the most marginalized and vulnerable involved in coffee production.  Without their labor, coffee as we know it would not exist.  And yet, our knowledge of farm workers is still so limited, especially compared to how much we know about all the other areas and groups in coffee.

We tried to change that this year at the SCAA show having Norman, Erwin, Marcos and Elio present. Unfortunately, the female workers who were going to join us got their visas denied.  All these workers were democratically elected by all the other workers at their farms to represent them at this event.  Between the four of them, they represented over 2,000 coffee farm workers.

Once in Seattle, we met to discuss the coffee farm worker association, an initiative that we began in January in Brazil with workers from three countries.  The idea is to create a space for coffee workers from different countries to learn from each other and have their voices heard louder and clearer in the specialty coffee industry.  We hope that with this initiative, farm workers in coffee will finally have a seat at the table to engage with the specialty coffee industry, share their challenges and opportunities and find ways to improve the situation of workers worldwide.

Coffee workers visiting Seattle discuss the coffee farm workers association

Coffee workers visiting Seattle discuss the coffee farm workers association

We also had a reception hosted by our partners at United Farm Workers (have you heard of Cesar Chavez?  This is his union) and the Washington State Labor Council.  Over 60 people from the coffee industry, NGO’s and labor organizations joined us to meet and honor the farm workers visiting Seattle.  Workers spoke from their hearts and shared their powerful testimonies of what it means to work the coffee fields.

Erwin from Nicaragua mentioned that he did not have experience speaking in public, but that everyone present gave him strength to share his thoughts: “We are not here to beg, but to ask you to buy our coffee in fair terms so our kids can wear shoes to go to school”.  Marcos from Brazil closed the event by saying: “Now that I have met you, I will go back to the farm and work even harder so you can have even tastier coffee. And now that you have met me, I hope you buy my coffee in fair terms so we can improve the situation of our communities”.

Reception honoring farm workers in coffee – Executive Dow Constantine, from King County, reads a proclamation welcoming and honoring farm workers in coffee

Reception honoring farm workers in coffee – Executive Dow Constantine, from King County, reads a proclamation welcoming and honoring farm workers in coffee

Having Norman, Erwin, Marcos and Elio at the SCAA show made a difference. For the first time since I am involved in coffee, I heard people mentioning farm workers at different presentations and events.  We hosted a panel during the lectures series with a packed room where Marcos spoke about the challenges that workers faced and how unfair it was that the industry was not doing more to improve those conditions.  I saw people in the audience tearing up with Marcos when he shared how Norman and Erwin from Nicaragua had reflected on how a cup of Clover drip coffee cost as much as they made in one day.  Visiting the original Starbucks store was a dream come-true for Marcos who had heard so much about it.  Yet, it was a bittersweet experience seeing how much people enjoyed their coffees while knowing that little of that value goes back to workers.

The panel was well received and you can learn more about it here and here.  After the panel, Michael Sheridan, from Catholic Relief Services, reflected on how much energy roasters and importers have invested in coffee quality and how that has improved the industry so much.  He said how, if a few people were to invest just a small portion of that energy on working for a better future for farm workers, things would begin to change.

In the next months, I hope to continue working with Norman, Erwin, Marcos and Elio, but also with many others who share my interest in this issue in the northern part of the world.  Any solution to the situation of farm workers in coffee will need the involvement of the coffee industry.  Workers are doing their part; farms such as La Revancha in Nicaragua, Ipanema and Primavera in Brazil are doing their part; NGO’s are beginning to do their part; now we need coffee roasters and importers to begin doing their part too.

Now that the farm workers have had their voices heard loud and clear, and as Marcos alluded: now that we have met them in person, will we continue ignoring the farm worker issue in coffee?

Millions in the Margins Panel - SCAA 2014 -  with Michael, Erik, Marcos and Pascale - Pic: @CRSFairTrade

Millions in the Margins Panel – SCAA 2014 – with Michael, Erik, Marcos and Pascale – Pic: @CRSFairTrade


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2 Responses

  1. Hello Miguel,
    Thanks for the work you are doing. Beyond FT, what do you have in mind when you write it is time for importers and roasters to “do their part”?
    Robert Fulmer
    Royal Coffee Inc.

  2. Miguel says:

    Hi Robert,
    Thank you very much for your comment. I think there are several things importers and roasters can begin doing on this issue:
    – Learn more about the situation of farm workers in your supply chain. Even with suppliers that are certified (whatever the certification might be), research has found that the conditions of farm workers in coffee are very challenging. The recent SOAS research of groups of smallholders and larger certified farms show that. The CRS Coffeelands blog recently wrote about it too: Certifications have traditionally focused on smallholders and the environment but farmworkers have not traditionally been included in the coffee sustainability efforts. I think importers and roasters could benefit from learning more about the situation of workers in the farms they buy coffee from: what are the average and minimum salaries worker receive? Do workers in those farms have access to workers’ comp in a case of an accident (being bitten by a snake/spider, falling while harvesting in steep slopes, accident while working with machetes, etc)? during the harvest, how are the housing conditions where workers stay at the farm (do workers have any privacy, security and dignified conditions)? Do workers have the right personal protection equipment and training to work on the fields (to apply pesticides, for example)? I could send you over email more general questions that you could consider and that could help to have a better idea of the situation of workers in specific farms you may be visiting. There might be some general things that you or your partners could learn from visits and other things you could learn through partnerships with organizations working at origin
    – Ask your suppliers (exporters, co-ops) to provide information about the situation of workers on the fields where the coffee that comes to you was grown. Are there ways to check that any claims about the situation of workers are accurate? Is the situation of workers in those farms a potential risk for you and your clients (if a journalist were to take pictures and ask questions, for example)?
    – Work with your suppliers to find ways to learn more and improve the situation of farm workers in those farms. This could be more challenging, of course, since many importers/roasters need to focus on their side of the business (and rightly so) so the next recommendation could be useful too
    – Engage with and support the work of organizations such as United Farm Workers, Catholic Relief Services and Coffee Gente (the latter one is my organization) that are trying to learn more about the situation of farm workers in coffee, share the information with the coffee industry and create spaces to discuss alternatives and models that can bring farm workers into the industry sustainability efforts
    – Support existing initiatives that are trying to create a significant better situation for workers in coffee. Both Finca La Revancha in Nicaragua and Ipanema Agricola in Brasil are examples of farms that have been working in Fair Trade and with organizations such as United Farm Workers to create a different situation for their workers. When a buyer buys coffee in Fair Trade from those farms, 20 cents per pound of coffee go to the workers who, democratically and independently, decide how to invest those funds in projects to benefit the workers and their communities.

    I really appreciate your comment and question, Robert. Knowing of your interest on this issue means a lot. You are a leader in coffee and somebody many of us have respected and admired a lot over the years. I hope you can continue being part of this discussion and help us with your leadership to try fining alternatives that help the specialty coffee industry, once again, lead on another important sustainability issue.

    Miguel Zamora
    Coffee Gente

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