“The price one coffee we drank there was one day of labor at the origin,” Camilo (translated from Portuguese) later told guests at an SCAA panel discussion on how farmworkers are traditionally excluded from the coffee industry’s supply chain sustainability efforts. In a somber voice, Camilo noted how coffee appeared to be “green gold” during his visit, a complete contradiction to his daily experiences in coffee farming since the age of 13. “Most times we are not aware of values and negotiations…We are not aware of the value the product has.”
This is a prime example of supply chain disfunction, where at one extreme is a $4 latte, and at the other are farmworkers — not necessarily smallholders or cooperatives or individual farms, but the actual humans that pick the majority of the coffee consumed in the world — afflicted with widespread poverty, food and work insecurity, child labor, and little or no access to healthcare or basic education.
Despite the amazing work of some buyers within the industry over the past decade to strengthen sustainability within their own supply chains, as well as the work of nonprofits and other NGOs to provide direct relief at origin, the coffee industry on the whole has a serious and growing “farmworker problem,” suggested Michael Sheridan of CRS Coffeelands, who moderated the panel discussion “Millions on the Margins: Bringing Farmworkers Into Mainstream Sustainability Efforts.”
“The first step to solving a problem is realizing that you have one,” said Sheridan, adding that our “collective IQ” on sustainability issues affecting smallholders is much higher than it is on actual farmworkers. “Farmworkers remain largely invisible in the sustainability discourse in our industry.”
This largely blind eye from the majority of the coffee industry is in itself is not sustainable, suggested Erik Nicholson of United Farm Workers, who came to the panel with decades of experience working to identify and resolve labor issues in a number of agricultural sectors. “Things are getting worse and they’re getting worse fast,” Nicholson said of working and living conditions for farmworkers. “In an industry that produces so much wealth, we should be appalled.”
As the only panelist representing buyer side of the industry, Pascale Schuit of London’s Union Hand Roasted Coffee announced her full support of promoting this conversation, sharing her own appalling experience on what her first trip to a coffee farm. She lived there for 30 days, witnessing cruel realities such as farmers leaving babies in the field among snakes and scorpions while they worked, and children in the field with untreated mental disabilities.
These examples do not exist in isolation, Schuit said, but are common symptoms of a broken supply chain. “This is happening,” she said. “We cannot close our eyes and look the other way.”
In an appeal to leaders within the industry, Fair Trade USA Director of Coffee, Innovation and Producer Relations Miguel Zamora said the living and working conditions among millions of farmworkers are primarily ethics and sustainability issues, but they also happen to be “a public relations disaster waiting to happen.” Zamora cited the negative public relations outbreak related to widespread child labor and slavery in the cocoa industry, suggesting coffee might be next.
Zamora and Fair Trade USA reached out to Camilo to visit SCAA, in part to help put a human face on farmworker issues, but also to discuss the group’s Fair Trade For All program, of which Camilo’s Ipanema Agricola has been a pilot member. Unlike other programs at origin that provide direct relief, certification implementation or labor organization assistance, the program takes a unique approach toward communication: Farmworkers gather for workshops and discussions through which they collectively define their greatest needs, either in the field or at home. Then, with funding assistance, farmers are involved in planning, building and implementing the projects themselves, creating not only essentials like drinking water, daycare facilities or toilets, but also a sense of empowerment.
Part of the program involves bringing farmers together from other farms and countries to also collectively share issues and insight. Said Zamora, “We can’t create sustainability for workers, we have to create sustainability with workers.”
All panelists agreed that certifications of many kinds can be a useful tool in addressing the “farmworker problem,” but that they can only go so far in long-term sustainability. For now, they said, the responsibility must also fall on industry to help bring farmworkers into the sustainability discussion.
For Camilo, new toilets on his farm, built by farmers, are a sign of hope. So too was the fact that his farmer friends in Nicaragua received a deal for a premium contract during the SCAA show. But his discovery of “green gold” in Seattle was anything but encouraging.
Said Camilo, “The people on my farm… When I go back to Brazil and share this reality with them, there will not be smiles.”