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Column: Preventing Labor Abuses Requires Supporting Farmers

coffee labor picking

[Editor’s note: This is Part 6 of an ongoing editorial series led by Verité exploring labor issues affecting the global coffee sector through its U.S. Department of Labor-funded Cooperation On Fair, Free, Equitable Employment (COFFEE Project). See more of Verité’s work on coffee here. Daily Coffee News does not engage in sponsored content of any kind and all views or opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author/s.]

In previous articles focusing on labor issues in the coffee sector, we discussed a range of common labor risks and the rapid evolution of the legislative landscape around due diligence. We also provided suggestions for steps that companies can take to proactively address labor risks in their coffee supply chains.

However, we must realize that managing these risks and improving due diligence systems focused on labor issues requires time and resources from coffee farmers, who already have small profit margins.

Thus, coffee companies need to support their upstream suppliers, especially farmers, by building their capacity and systems, and providing them with the resources and incentives necessary to effectively identify, address and prevent labor issues at the farm level. 

Improving labor conditions and respect for workers’ human rights comes at a cost. If companies do not provide their suppliers with the knowledge, tools and resources that they need to develop and implement systems to address labor risks, the onus will be passed on to farmers, who are the actors in the supply chain with the least capacity for such investments.

coffee plant sunlight

Considering that many coffee farmers, especially smallholders, often struggle to turn a profit at the end of the harvest, there is a very real risk that most of them will simply be unable to make the investments necessary to develop and implement a robust human rights due diligence system. 

It is also essential to identify cost-effective solutions to improve working conditions and worker wellbeing that create shared value for coffee farmers, traders and roasters. Additionally, companies need to provide farmers with support and incentives to implement these practices and to ensure their sustainability. This can include helping farmers to develop complementary income-generating activities, as well as developing pricing models that reflect the additional investments required from farmers. 

It can also include the provision of training, tools and resources to farmers to build their capacity to identify and manage labor risks and to develop and implement effective human rights due diligence and management systems. 

Improving Understanding of Labor Issues

To effectively address labor issues at the farm level, it is essential that actors across the coffee value chain have an accurate shared understanding of key labor issues. Coffee professionals often lack essential knowledge that can help them to identify and address labor risks, such as the difference between child labor and child work, indicators of forced labor, root causes of wage and hour violations, or how to use a management systems approach to address labor violations.

One way for coffee roasters, traders, cooperatives and producers to increase staff capacity to identify, address and prevent labor issues in the sector is through training.

Verité’s U.S. Department of Labor-funded Cooperation On Fair, Free, Equitable Employment (COFFEE) Project has developed a set of eight open-source interactive, self-paced online training modules covering international labor standards and trends related to child labor, forced labor, recruitment and gender issues, along with good practices in the identification, remediation and prevention of labor risks, including through data collection at the farm-level, management systems and due diligence.

All of these modules are available in English and Spanish, and five are available in Portuguese.

Beyond Education 

Although training is a great first step, education alone is often not enough to change labor practices. Coffee farmers need to be provided with concrete tools and resources, such as the 17 open-source COFFEE Project tools. 

Coffee buyers also need to put in place the right incentives to encourage coffee farmers to invest their time and resources into developing and implementing effective systems and actions to prevent labor violations.

For coffee companies, the changing legislative landscape in many coffee producing and importing countries represents a major incentive to provide support to farmers in their extended supply chains.

Meanwhile, farmers can be incentivized to invest in improving working conditions through premiums, long-term contracts and favorable trade conditions.

Coffee buyers can also fund the development and implementation of pilot projects to identify cost-effective, mutually beneficial approaches to reduce labor risks. These approaches may also provide tangible and intangible benefits for farmers, such as increased worker retention, production and quality.

In this vein, companies need living-wage and living-income benchmarks for their key sourcing regions to understand not only the amount of money that workers need to earn in order to survive, but the amount that farmers need to earn in order to keep their farms running.

All too often, farmers who are barely turning a profit are expected to unilaterally bear the burden for improving workers’ wages and working conditions. Therefore, it is essential to explore pricing models that can provide farmers with adequate resources to put in place systems to reduce labor risks.

In the next article, we will explore how living wage and living income benchmarks can be a helpful tool to address root causes of labor violations in coffee production.