One of the recurring notions in today’s first session of the Re:co specialty coffee symposium — being held online this year — was that the largest of the large coffee roasting companies are best prepared to benefit from shifts in demand and consumer behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As disconcerting as that may be for smaller players, there is a massive group of people on the other end of the supply stream who came into the pandemic as the most vulnerable population of all, and their position has been considerably worsened in the COVID-19 era: farmworkers.
A combination of woefully low global coffee prices on the commodities market and labor shortages due to pandemic-related restrictions are expected to precipitate an increase in forced labor and child labor in the coffee sector, according to numerous recent surveys of producer representatives.
As the Massachusetts-based research organization and consultancy Verité begins implementing its Cooperation On Fair, Free Equitable Employment (COFFEE) Project — funded last year and designed to help address forced labor issues in the coffee trade — the group has pivoted to explicitly address the effects of COVID-19 on the lives of coffee workers.
“With significant economic impacts on actors along the coffee supply chain as a result of the pandemic, there is a significant risk that working conditions will further deteriorate as crises usually affect the most vulnerable workers the hardest,” Verité stated in a recent memo called “COVID-19 and the Coffee Sector.”
The memo continues, “The coffee industry must acknowledge that farmworkers are essential to ensuring the supply of coffee, and the sector must balance profit margins and long-term business goals with worker welfare through an emphasis on shared-value.”
In the memo, Verité outlines numerous impacts on farmworkers as well as producers thus far in the pandemic. Yet it also outlines a broad range of recommendations for coffee buyers.
So, if you’re the kind of coffee trading or roasting company that wants to minimize the incidence of forced labor or child labor in your supply stream, Verité has created something of a checklist:
Verité’s Recommendations for Coffee Buyers During COVID-19
Think long-term. Your business needs to be successful this year and for years to come. The best way to build socially sustainable sourcing systems is by investing in your sourcing networks, which rely on farmworkers for essential activities from planting to harvesting. The pandemic is a test of your commitment to building a sustainable coffee sector.
Develop and communicate clear guidelines and policies to your suppliers on protocols to safeguard workers in your supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic, reinforcing your commitments to eradicating forced and child labor and promoting decent conditions of work.
Support your suppliers and partners in coffee producing countries to facilitate farmer and farmworker access to social assistance programs.
Support positive cashflows by providing payments to your suppliers as soon as possible.
Consider providing emergency cash advances or cash transfers to farmer cooperatives and farmer associations, or to individual farms, within your supply chain. Support local NGO partners providing direct emergency assistance to farms and farmworkers.
Provide flexible contract terms to your suppliers, avoiding penalties for late deliveries of coffee that could be linked to pandemic-related restrictions on the transport and migration of workers and the shipping of coffee in place in many coffee producing countries.
Conduct ongoing monitoring and effectively respond (in collaboration with your suppliers) to any specific risks or violations identified. Rather than terminating these relationships, promote continuous improvement in addressing labor issues identified.
Support the generation of innovative alternatives for coffee producers in the development of feasible alternatives to piece rate pay systems and/or the implementation of pilot programs to address issues tied to piece rate payments.