Last summer, researchers at the Danish human rights organization Danwatch published this story about labor rights violations in the coffee sector in Brazil. The authors argue that the problem “has its roots in the fact that some people believe that it is ok to exploit others to increase their own gain.”
I won’t argue that this attitude is not present in the coffee sector. It is part of what a sixth-generation coffee farmer friend calls coffee’s “colonial hangover.” But labor violations due to this kind of attitude among farm owners are so reprehensible and so discordant with our values that they are easy to condemn, even if they are not easy to identify and remediate. More complicated — and more worthy of serious consideration — are labor challenges that arise not from a farm owner’s sense of his or her innate superiority, but from the underlying economics of the coffee supply chain.
Labor shortages in the coffeelands are occurring more and more frequently, with would-be farmworkers finding work elsewhere that is less grueling, more rewarding, or both. One logical response is for farm owners to raise wages to make farm work in coffee more attractive. But labor costs are already a farm owner’s single largest expense, and can account for 60 percent or more of the cost of production. Raising wages further — especially when market prices are low — can cut into grower margins that are already thin or make coffee farming unprofitable altogether. Juan Luis Barrios, owner of Finca La Merced in Guatemala, told me last year that labor is “the one problem on my farm I don’t know how to solve.”
Many farm owners turn to labor brokers to make the labor recruitment and management processes more efficient. Cheaper. What they may not know is that researchers have identified labor brokerage and unethical recruitment as leading risk factors for violation of labor rights in the coffee sector. Program Manager Quinn Kepes was the lead researcher and author on this outstanding study on labor in the coffee sector in Guatemala that highlights the role of labor brokers, and he is currently working with Keurig to help the company better understand the labor recruitment dynamics in its supply chain in Guatemala.
Juan Luis and Quinn join Specialty Coffee Association of America Director of Sustainability Kim Elena Ionescu on Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern for a live online discussion of these issues and other challenges and opportunities related to farm labor in the coffee sector. Put it on your calendar now and stream it live, or watch the archived version which will be posted here following the conversation.
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.