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Coffee’s bitter side: addressing labor conditions

© Neil Palmer/CIAT

Editor’s note: September 29 marks National Coffee Day in the U.S. Throughout the month of September, Human Nature is publishing a special series of reports on the  Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a coalition working to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product. This post is the third in the series.

The coffee sector has a labor problem – or maybe multiple labor problems.

Pruning and weeding of coffee trees, and picking the ripe cherries, is all done by hand on the vast majority of farms, and this labor accounts for up to 60 percent of production costs. Meanwhile, climate change, disease outbreaks and price fluctuations can disrupt traditional labor patterns and lead to labor shortages and create conditions for poor labor practices.

So we have to ask the question: Who is picking our coffee?

Unfortunately, it’s sometimes children. Coffee features prominently among the 75 agricultural commodities listed by the U.S. Department of Labor of goods produced by child or forced labor; the list cites child labor in the coffee-growing areas of 14 countries. Recommendations for companies to prevent these labor abuses include voluntary programs that are often expensive and difficult to implement.

Sometimes, it’s people living and working in poor conditions. Last year, an investigative report revealed “conditions analogous to slavery” in some Brazilian coffee farms, affecting some major retailers.

Sadly, the issue isn’t new and it’s not unique to coffee — but attempts to address it have largely been fragmented and insufficient to tackle the issue at scale.

Enter the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a collaboration of over 80 actors from across the coffee sector working to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product.

“Most discussions of labor begin with the needs and vulnerabilities of workers, but farm owners also face challenges including paper-thin or non-existent profit margins between the wages they pay workers and the sale price that they receive for their coffee, as well as the availability of farm workers during the peak of the coffee harvest,” explained Kim Elena Ionescu, Chief Sustainability Officer at SCA.

To keep labor at the forefront of the coffee sustainability conversation, SCA has made it one of the key focus areas for Avance, the association’s first sustainability conference, being held in Guatemala City on October 11th and 12th. It was important, Ionescu said, to have these difficult conversations in a place coffee is produced — with the people producing the coffee.

As companies along the coffee value chain commit to sustainable sourcing as part of the Challenge, the focus is increasingly on labor issues. While still in its relatively early stages, the Challenge aims to be a powerful platform for improving labor conditions in coffee.

To start, it is shedding light on efforts underway by the sector to address labor conditions and to understand the thicket of laws and legal frameworks that govern — or in fact, don’t — farm labor in the countries where coffee is produced.

“Coffee presents an economic development opportunity for many communities across the tropics — but it must benefit the entire community – including the farm workers who arrive during the harvest to pick the coffee,” said Bambi Semroc, senior strategic adviser at Conservation International, a member of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge. “Addressing labor conditions is critical, yet probably one of the greatest challenges — not just for coffee but for the entire agricultural sector.”

The goal, Semroc says, is to develop guidance and tools that enable the coffee sector to pinpoint potential labor hotspots and to align on joint actions. When taken at scale, these steps will help to professionalize coffee labor in a way that enhances quality and creates a pathway to prosperity for coffee workers and their families.

Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at Conservation International.

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