By Ben Corey-Moran, Fair Trade USA
Farmworkers are the backbone of coffee production. These women, men—and yes, sometimes children—are the labor force that drives coffee production, yet they toil behind the curtain of our industry’s awareness. In the well-worn hands of an estimated four million farmworkers rests the promise of great coffee, the hope for industry profitability, and a path toward the long-term viability of specialty coffee production.
If great coffee “doesn’t just happen,” we as a specialty coffee industry would be well advised to look closely at the economic and social issues related to the farm labor that plays such a great role in its creation. First, the prices that farmers receive are out of step with the reality of specialty coffee production. Secondly, on-farm labor shortages affect both quantity and quality of coffee. Thirdly, the violation of workers’ rights poses a reputational risk to specialty brands and the industry alike.
Our industry requires a product that’s something more than a commodity, yet we base the fundamental economics of our industry on market prices that routinely dip below cost of specialty production. Producing great coffee requires careful year-round attention to pruning and soil and shade management, work that climaxes with the harvest. When market prices are low (at or below the cost of production) corners must be cut, and they routinely are. The Central American leaf rust outbreak of 2012/2013 not only made it clear that the threat of climate change is real, but also exposed large-scale deficits in soil management, plant health, and farm renovation. Read another way, leaf rust has shown us how little farmers have been able to reinvest in their farms over the past few decades. Given this economic picture, cost reduction is an essential business strategy for farms to achieve some semblance of profitability. But cutting costs to achieve profitability requires more than just reducing inputs. A close look at coffee production reveals that it’s people who make great coffee happen: by some estimates, labor accounts for as much as 60-70 percent of coffee’s cost of production. The downward pressure of market prices create downward pressure on the wages of workers, not to mention workers’ access to adequate housing, food, safe cooking spaces, and sanitary bathrooms and washrooms, as well as schools and medical care.
What drives coffee farmers to produce a better quality product? It’s not only the price incentive that buyers offer farm owners, but also the incentives that farm owners are able to offer farmworkers, providing a reason to pick more selectively, fertilize more thoroughly, and dry more carefully. Great coffee requires great skill; and great skill is not a commodity, but the product of well-trained, well-paid, and well- treated workers. Who will spot the next leaf rust outbreak on the far corner of a farm, and enable that farm to effectively manage the blight? Who will ensure that mixed picking and imprecise processing don’t quickly erode the potential of a farm’s production? Great coffee requires an active collaboration between skilled workers and their employers, a collaboration that is only possible when workers are valued and included as co-creators of a great product.
Slumbering like an iceberg just below the surface lies the next big issue in coffee: labor shortages. Many growers in Central America and Colombia report seasonal labor shortages, especially during the peak of the harvest. The supply of workers—especially skilled workers who are required to produce great coffee—is shrinking as labor follows the natural path to better opportunities in cities, in other agricultural sectors, or to positions as migrant workers in more developed economies. Every year, farm owners across the specialty-producing world report more challenges in securing the labor they need for coffee production. The downward pressure of market prices is literally pushing workers towards better opportunities. Who will be left to produce the future’s specialty coffee? Leaf rust destroyed significant portions of specialty coffee production. There’s a growing rumbling at origin suggesting that labor shortages may do the same.
Our collective lack of awareness around the challenges farmworkers face not only undermines the future viability of our industry, it also presents a bevy of threats to the specialty coffee brand. The existence that most coffee workers must endure threatens to undermine our industry’s reputation as a leader in the sustainability space. Violations of worker’s rights include, but are not limited to: poverty wages, reliance on child labor, exploitation by criminal labor brokers, indentured servitude, and widespread acceptance of living and working conditions that fall well below widely accepted legal standards. Most particularly, they fall far short of the aspirations of specialty coffee to deliver a better way of life in the coffeelands.
There are many reasons for our industry to engage the issue of workers in coffee, ranging from our practical need to ensure the viability of our product, to our desire to demonstrate leadership in global agricultural sustainability. Doing so will add breadth to our collective work to create a long-term proposition for shared value and viability. Lifting the curtain on the issue of farm workers in coffee will also raise a new series of challenges our industry has never faced. Solutions will require new levels of collaboration, not only within our industry, but also with civil society and the public sector internationally. In the past, our industry has faced new challenges with a curious blend of denial and innovative leadership. As an industry we seem to be paradoxically so aware, and yet so slow to move; then, suddenly, we align and marshal our collective resources, and we break through. As we take a deeper look at the workers who make great coffee possible, let’s embrace our tradition of innovative leadership, expand our vision, and create a coffee industry that values the people who make it all possible.
Photos By Fair Trade USA
As Director of Coffee Supply at Fair Trade USA, Ben Corey-Moran manages supply chain development efforts to serve the needs of farmers, the trade, and a growing community of roasters and brands. Ben is a member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Sustainability Council, and former member of Fair Trade USA’s Roaster Advisory Committee, and United Students for Fair Trade’s National Advisory Board. Ben holds a B.A. in international affairs from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.