Labor Exploitation in the Coffee Industry
Written by Vaasav Gupta
The morning “cup of joe” is an everyday staple for coffee enthusiasts all over the world. However, the deplorable human rights violations pervasive throughout the coffee industry remain unbeknownst to a vast majority of these drinkers. The International Labor Foundation reports that there are 25 million people currently entrapped in forced labor of some form globally . In Vietnam alone, the U.S. Dept. of Labor estimates that there are over 34,000 child laborers growing coffee. In recent years, an increasing amount of light has been shed on labor exploitation in the coffee industry. Through ways of child labor, low pay, inhumane conditions, forced labor and a bustling, international, illegal slave trade, the coffee industry has become known as unethically exploitative. The aim of this whitepaper is to explore the immoral human rights violations in the coffee industry and study the economic and social causations of this pattern of forced labor.
Where it occurs
Coffee growth requires a warm, tropical climate with high humidity and ample sunshine. Thus, parts of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia are well-suited for coffee bean growth. In all countries where coffee bean production exists, there is some level of labor exploitation. However, Brazil and Côte d’Ivoire have been found to be the two countries in which child and forced labor is the most pervasive. The primary reason why countries like these are more susceptible to labor exploitation is the enormous amount of poverty discernible in their communities. In Brazil, nearly 20% of the population lives on under $5.50 per day. Because of such low earnings and an inability to provide for the basic needs of their families, parents and children are left with no choice but to take exploitative, low-paying jobs, not only in the coffee industry, but also in manufacturing, textiles, construction, mining, etc.. The financial situations of numerous families in developing countries like Brazil, Columbia, Côte d’Ivoire, Guatemala, Mexico, etc. make them vulnerable to labor exploitation in the coffee industry and other industries alike.
As a result of the poverty in many coffee-producing countries, child labor is frequent. By some estimates, nearly 40% of Honduran coffee plantation workers are children, and another study in Brazil found that child labor rates are 37% higher in places where coffee is produced. Since children need to work in order to help support their families, their time is spent on coffee fields rather than in classrooms. Unable to receive proper education, they often spend the entirety of their lives earning low wages. This perpetuates a poverty cycle: because their parents are poor the children cannot get an education, and because they do not have an education, they will most likely spend their adult life in poverty as well, so their children have to work for their family’s survival.
Compensation and working conditions
A major component of exploitation in the coffee industry is the extremely low pay. Coffee producers themselves only receive 7 - 10% of retail price, and this number can fluctuate significantly depending on global markets and contracts farmers have with larger companies. Because they themselves are not highly paid, most coffee plantation owners cannot afford to pay liveable wages to their workers. In Nicaragua, one 2016 study found coffee pickers earning only $2-$3 per day, although the minimum wage was nearly $6. In Brazil, Reuters has found some workers earning as little as 49 cents per hour. Moreover, in the case of many migrant workers, pickers are expected to pay for food, water, rent, etc., leaving them very little left from their already small wages. Oftentimes, plantation workers are forced to meet quotas of 40-60kg of coffee beans picked per day, and if they do not meet these quotas, they can lose food or receive even lower pay. In many scenarios, failure to meet these quotas results in physical, verbal, or sexual abuse.
Because of the nature of the work itself, plantation workers face numerous health hazards. Long work hours in the sun for up to ten hours per day increase workers’ chances of developing skin cancer. The dangerous chemicals in the weeding, fertilizer, etc. are inhaled by the workers for hours at a time and are handled by the worker without proper protective gear such as masks and gloves. This exposure increases their risk of birth defects, impairs breathing ability, and can put workers at serious risk for poisoning and other long-term health problems.
A Veritė study interviewed a group of Guatemalan coffee plantation workers and found that of the group, 64.8% lived in housing provided by their employer. In many cases, though, the housing is unsanitary and primitive. The living spaces are often dark, dirty, and isolated. In a 2017 documentary titled “The Source,” The Weather Channel and Telemundo revealed some of these living conditions on a coffee plantation in Mexico. Workers live in an unlit metal shed with rags scattered over the floor and wooden planks for beds. These dehumanizing living conditions are part of the larger trend of a coffee industry rife with human rights exploitations.
How coffee plantations acquire exploitable workers
In order to find workers, coffee plantation owners often employ recruiters to find and deliver exploitable, cheap labor. Typically, recruiters target low-income, vulnerable, illiterate, and crime-ridden areas outside of their country where people are desperate to leave. There is little economic opportunity in these towns and recruiters can entice prospective laborers by promising decent pay, good working conditions, etc.. Seeing an opportunity to leave their home country, the deceived immigrants trust the recruiters but then find themselves working on plantations with poor working and living conditions contrary to what they had been promised. Recruiters also target illegal immigrants within their own country, who are known to be poor, and, being illegal, blackmailable. Recruiters will threaten to report illegal immigrants to the authorities if they refuse work, leaving them no choice. Generally, when recruiting both outside of and within their own country, recruiters prefer women and children because they are seen as easier to take advantage of and more submissive, so plantation owners can pay them less. A 2008 study even found that up to 70% of the labor in coffee production is provided by women. These recruiting practices are widespread not only in the coffee industry but numerous others as well.
After being recruited, workers are kept under heavy, frequent watch to prevent escape and unionization. In many cases, individual workers are isolated from each other to limit discussion about escaping and reduce the chances that the workers will band together and either go on strike or attempt to escape. This sort of isolation can lead to intense trauma and serious psychological damage.
The Oxford Lexico Dictionary defines slave labor as “labor that is coerced and inadequately rewarded, or the people who perform such labor” . In the coffee industry, many workers find themselves trapped in slave labor because of debt bondage. Here, laborers are forced to work in order to pay off a debt they owe to their employer. Workers accrue this debt in a variety of ways, but significant ones include transportation to the farms, purchasing of protective equipment, rent, or food.
What is being done
Many governments and non-profit organizations have been making continuous efforts to combat the labor exploitation taking place in the coffee industry. In Brazil, where child and slave labor is rampant, the government has been conducting an increasing amount of raids on plantations and factories using slave labor. Since 2004, the government has bi-annually published a “dirty list” which names businesses using slave labor. After being placed on the list, the companies face numerous financial consequences. Organizations like The Rainforest Alliance certify ethically grown coffee and give consumers the choice to fight against labor exploitation themselves. FairTrade International offers coffee plantation farmers higher, fair prices for their coffee beans as long as they agree to maintain humane living and working conditions, provide a living wage, and meet other markers included in regular inspections.
Given the unknown humanitarian costs behind everyday goods, it is important to be a conscious consumer of coffee and all other products. In connecting small businesses in disadvantaged communities to broader markets in the U.S., Spes Nova offers a reliable source of artisanal-goods made in safe working conditions with no child or exploited labor. These artisans are paid a living wage and are offered financial and technical assistance to grow their businesses in a humane and sustainable fashion. To learn more about Spes Nova and the artisans we work with, please visit www.spesnova.org.
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Image: "Coffee Pickers in Timor-Leste" by United Nations Photo is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
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