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Coffee High on the List of Goods Produced through Child Labor

ILAB infographic reflecting "The List"

ILAB infographic reflecting “The List”

I have been writing on issues related to farm labor consistently since the beginning of last year, and talking with colleagues in the industry about farmworkers in the coffee sector for even longer. During that time, two common responses have been denial (it’s not really a big deal) and resignation (it is such a big deal it is hard to know where to begin).

There are resources out there that address both these impulses, providing compelling evidence for those in denial and practical guidance for those paralyzed by the magnitude of the issue. Readers of this blog who are taxpaying U.S. citizens have helped pay for two of them: the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor and “Reducing Child Labor and Forced Labor: A Toolkit for Responsible Businesses,” two worthy publications issued by the International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Publication of the List is mandated by an act of Congress called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and subsequent Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Acts in 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2013.

The Toolkit was developed by ILAB as part of its broader effort to reduce the incidence of child labor and forced labor in global supply chains in consultation with leaders in government, the private sector, the financial community, labor unions and nonprofits.

Today, notes from a recent conversation with Rachel Rigby, an ILAB veteran who has worked on both.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Michael Sheridan: In the most recent version of the List published in 2014, more countries were cited in agriculture than any other sector of the global economy, and coffee was the fourth-most-frequently cited product, with instances of child labor in 14 cases, including one country where there was evidence of both child labor and forced labor. How would you characterize coffee in comparison to other global supply chains in terms of the prevalence, seriousness and urgency of child labor?

Rachel Rigby:  Part of the reason that coffee is so well-represented on this list is that it is such an important crop in Latin America, and many Latin American countries are more advanced in terms of being open and transparent about data collection and dissemination. And countries that are transparent and open about data collection and dissemination are often the most cited, but it is important to recognize that this doesn’t mean they have more child labor than other countries. Sometimes countries can feel that they are being punished for being more open about the problem. For just that reason, we need to be supportive of those countries that are willing to be leaders in confronting these issues.

The fact that coffee is cited more frequently than other products doesn’t necessarily mean that coffee has more child labor. It speaks more to the availability of data in coffee-growing countries.

It is also really important for us to emphasize that the List has a lot of limitations. Data on child labor and forced labor worldwide are very incomplete. We are aware of those limitations and we do occasionally fund additional research to try to fill some of the gaps.

The Scarlet Letter

MS: I know that Colombia, which has appeared on every edition of the List since its inception, has been vocal in its dissent, filing this public protest. Is that response — public or private protest — common? And what can countries like Colombia do about getting off the List?

RR: We have heard from foreign governments and industry groups in specific countries every year since we started publishing the list in 2009. Coffee is no exception.

Usually these groups contact us to ask what they have to do to get off the List. We try to keep our answer very simple because it really is a very simple process. We are answering a yes or no question: Is there child labor or forced labor in the production of a good in more than an isolated incident or not? The question that should be asked then is, “How do we address child labor or forced labor in the production of this good?” It is not, “How do we get off the List?”

The mandate we received from the law behind this List is clear: we include in the List the countries and goods where there is evidence that labor practices are “in violation of international standards.” It is very clear what international standards we should use in our evaluations because there are conventions from the International Labor Organization that set a kind of baseline standard.

We have five criteria that we weigh evidence against in making our decisions and we often spend months analyzing evidence against those criteria, which are also at the center of all the analysis we do. We also have a 50-page manual that explains how to operationalize those criteria.

So it really is a robust process, and we won’t remove a good from a particular country from our list if we have evidence that reflects that, in more than an isolated incident, child labor or forced labor is occurring.

Culturally Appropriate?

MS: One of the complaints I have heard and read from leaders in coffee-growing countries is that the process lacks, shall we say, a proper dose of anthropology. That it doesn’t into account cultural factors related to life in the coffeelands, like the time-honored tradition of kids harvesting coffee during school vacations. How do you respond to that critique?

RR: The ILO standards we rely on are robust. They are international and are supposed to be respected and applicable in all kinds of countries. Most of the time, a country’s own legal framework prohibits child labor and forced labor and the country has ratified the international conventions.

Private-Sector Engagement

MS: What role has the U.S. private sector played in helping to redress instances of child labor and/or forced labor in their supply chains overseas?

RR: We developed the Toolkit for Responsible Business for precisely this purpose. We don’t have a lot of info on uptake, but we do know it has been used effectively by companies that on their own have decided that this is an important issue to them and have put in place the processes and recommendations included in the Toolkit. We maintain a dialogue with those companies.

Following the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh in 2013, we played a major role engaging with the garment sector along with other U.S. government partners, European governments and NGOs.

We have worked closely with the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition, which has worked hard to address the issue of forced labor in its supply chains in East Asia and incorporated strong protections in its code of conduct, and with Coca-Cola, who has been working on this issue in its sugar supply chains.

We have had a lot of engagement with the chocolate industry, which has been more deeply engaged on the issue than most other industries, largely as a result of the Harkin-Engel protocol and a later Joint Declaration, which really focused the sector’s attention on child labor. We have been partners in with industry and the producer governments of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in a framework for implementing the protocol and Declaration’s guidance for addressing child labor in cocoa producing areas in these two countries and are active in the Child Labor Cocoa Coordinating Group.

Coffee Collaboration?

MS: But it sounds like you haven’t had a ton of engagement in recent years with the coffee sector. Would the U.S. Department of Labor welcome formal engagement with companies in the U.S. coffee sector to address instances of child labor in their supply chains in countries on the List of Goods?

RR: Coffee is an important product that is used by so many people on a daily basis, and it is an industry that is well-represented on our list. We have done some work in the coffee sector, but would be really interested in increased engagement with the coffee sector. Our door is open to actors all along the coffee supply chain.



Omar Rizo Blandon

This is just a problem of 1st world consumers who lacks understanding and respect for cultures they think are beneath them. Coffee picking is done by the poor. The poor have children. The coffee picking process involves everyone. There is no places to park children in daycare, preschool in the high mountains of central america. Children follow their parents in the coffee fields and stay close or they stay in the encampments. When you want to pay $1.20 for a pound of green coffee and call us child labor abusers, you are the typical ugly american.

Michael Sheridan


Thank you for sharing your perspective. I would invite you to follow the link below and join the conversation over this issue on the CRS Coffeelands Blog, where we get into precisely the kinds of cultural considerations you mention:

I hope you will bring your valid perspectives to the Coffeelands discussion but leave the “ugly American” stuff behind. We are all working hard to find solutions that work for everyone in the coffee chain, including the people it is not serving well right now, like the children of the farmworkers you mention.

So much of the challenge around this issue is, just as you suggest, that the marketplace wants an exceptional product at an unrealistic price. That is clearly not a recipe for a sustainable coffee trade–it is a recipe that obligates farm owners to cut corners in terms of the investments they make in their farms and the people who work them.

I have been living and working in the coffeelands in Latin America on and off over the past 20 years, and find your perspective to be a common one: there IS a cultural impulse for families who work in agriculture to stay together, and even when families WOULD take advantage of day care services on farms, they are rarely available.

The difficult thing is that even in those contexts in which the scenario you describe is culturally acceptable, governments are usually signatories to International Labor Organization Conventions that prohibit child labor and have often passed laws at the national level that are designed to keep kids out of the fields. Labor laws like those in Colombia that don’t allow kids under 17 in the coffee fields under any circumstances may be considered culturally tone-deaf or out-of-touch with the economic realities of farmworker families, but they are the law of the land. They are not impositions by “ugly Americans” or anyone else, but the laws that a sovereign Colombian government has passed of its own accord.

I agree with you that we can’t have meaningful discussions around these issues–or meaningful progress on them–with the market at $1.20/lb. But even if prices are two times that level or even higher (remember the $3 market in 2011?), better conditions for farmworkers won’t happen naturally. We need to have a dialogue about what we want farm labor in the coffee sector to look like and how much it will cost, or else we will get back to $3 and not have a plan in place for how we translate those prices into better conditions on the farm.

Thanks again for your comment!


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