Over the past two years, we have been working with colleagues in the coffee and nonprofit sectors to better understand farmworker issues in the coffeelands. In the process, we have boosted our farmworker IQ and busted some commonly held myths about farm labor in the coffee sector, like this one:
MYTH: Farm labor is only an issue for big roasters sourcing big volumes of coffee from big farms.
REALITY: Big isn’t (necessarily) bad, and small isn’t (necessarily) beautiful.
Big Roasters, Big Volumes, Big Farms
In certain segments of the specialty market, the idea that labor is an issue only relevant for big roasters sourcing big volumes from big farms is a widely held belief. I have heard the assertion that the direct trade sourcing model, which features frequent farm visits and high prices for coffee of exceptional quality, ensures direct trade roasters don’t have labor issues in their supply chains.
And there is resistance in some Fair Trade circles to engagement with farmworker problems because Fair Trade in coffee was originally meant to address a different source of injustice: the structural disadvantage of smallholder growers vis-a-vis estates that are larger, better capitalized, more efficient and (perhaps occasionally) widening their profit margins by exploiting labor.
I have worked closely with roasters in both categories over the past decade. In fact, this week I am traveling in Colombia with direct trade buyers and buyers who source Fair Trade coffee. I can say from my own experience that direct trade and Fair Trade have contributed significantly to improvements in the quality of life in the coffeelands. But that doesn’t absolve them from accountability on farm labor in their supply chains.
Why Small Isn’t (Necessarily) Beautiful
Direct Trade: What’s on Your Origin Agenda?
Just because a buyer from a direct trade roaster visits a farm and likes what s/he sees doesn’t mean there aren’t labor issues to address. I have accompanied visits to smallholder farms by direct trade roasters and don’t ever recall working conditions coming up, even when those visits took place during harvest and there were workers in the fields picking coffee. My sense is that farmworkers are rarely on the agenda when direct trade buyers visit the growers they source from. Until questions about labor recruitment, working conditions and wages are as much a part of direct trade visits to source as questions about cup quality, post-harvest processing and production, source visits aren’t a reliable proxy for compliance with labor law.
Fair Trade: Small Farms Hire Labor, Too
There is a deeply rooted narrative in the coffee sector about the smallholder farmer who depends exclusively on family labor. It is seductive. It is romantic. It is wrong.
The Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction program at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies caused quite a stir last year when it published this report suggesting that workers in Fair Trade Certified supply chains (including workers on Fair Trade coffee farms in Ethiopia and Uganda) were no better off than workers on non-certified farms. I suggested at the time the biggest contribution of the report was not the comparison of workers in certified and non-certified supply chains but its prominent assertion that Fair Trade’s family labor narrative is a myth in many parts of the coffeelands and the powerful evidence it marshals in support of that assertion.
But I’m not taking their word for it. My own experience with smallholder growers in Central and South America is consistent with the report’s finding about their reliance on hired labor during the harvest.
Fair Trade’s progress in leveling the playing field for smallholder coffee farmers is worthy of celebration, but it doesn’t mean that smallholder Fair Trade doesn’t have labor problems to contend with.
Why Big Isn’t (Necessarily) Bad
We love to root for the underdogs, and we love to hate the big dogs. And big roasters do source big volumes from big farms that rely on big numbers of farmworkers. Precisely because they do (because labor is more visible in these production systems than they are in smallholder systems) they have been compelled to address labor issues in their supply chains through codes of conduct and certifications in ways that smaller roasters sourcing more consistently from smallholders have not. The big coffee companies may not have all the answers on farm labor, but learning from their engagement seems a natural starting point for those of us who are still new to the issue.
What does it mean to bust this particular myth about farm labor in coffee?
Let me be clear: I don’t think direct trade and Fair Trade buyers are alone. I don’t think any buyers are focused enough on farmworkers during their visits to source. I am only singling out direct trade and Fair Trade here because of the suggestion that they may be immune to labor concerns by virtue of their sourcing models.
Everyone buying coffee has farmworkers in their supply chains. Serious engagement with supply chain sustainability in the coffee sector will require roasters to reject decisively the trope that labor is only an issue for big roasters sourcing big volumes from big farms.
Michael Sheridan has worked on coffee for Catholic Relief Services since 2004. He currently directs the Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia and Ecuador and advises other CRS coffee projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is based in Quito and publishes perspectives from the intersection of coffee and international development for the CRS Coffeelands Blog at coffeelands.crs.org.