Reflections from the Farmworkers Sustainability Panel

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By Miguel Zamora

The issue of farmworkers was very present at this year’s SCAA Expo. The Sustainability Council of the SCAA organized a panel to discuss some of the challenges we face as an industry in this regard. This is the third year in a row that Sustainability Council members have moderated panels to discuss farmworkers and that a farmworker has been included in the panel to present the workers’ perspective. This might sound like a minor thing, but having farmworkers speak for themselves about the challenges and opportunities for the specialty coffee industry to engage with the millions of people who work on coffee farms is an important and necessary step for true sustainability.

The panel included the perspective of a farmer from Guatemala, a farmworker from Nicaragua, an organization working on policy issues in Colombia, and a roaster from the U.S. It began with an overview of the situation and new developments. The most important developments in the last year included:

  • A new law passed by the U.S. government that repeals an exception that allowed goods produced with forced labor into the U.S. (including coffee)
  • Danwatch report on isolated labor conditions in coffee farms in Brazil – The report singled out specific companies for not securing that their coffees were not produced in farms accused of having forced labor

Farmworker issues have been highlighted in industry and mainstream press in the last months. More attention will likely be paid to the situation of farmworkers in coffee in the future.

Juan Luis Barrios, a farmer from Guatemala and SCAA board member, explained that farmers are facing labor shortages during the harvest and year-around. Working in coffee is not as attractive for workers as it used to be. Not having enough people to prune or fertilize will have an effect on yields and income. More alternatives are available for workers in the rural area and in the cities. Barrios recommended the coffee industry to have these discussions with farmers in their supply chains. This issue needs to be addressed in partnership between farmers and industry.

Juan Carlos Hernandez, a worker from Nicaragua, highlighted the challenges that workers face. From salaries that do not allow workers to have a dignified life or food security all year round to working conditions that harm their health and that of their families, the situation is a threat to the future of labor in coffee. He shared a very emotional plea for the coffee industry to learn more about the situation of workers and engage with farmers in their supply chain so workers can also benefit from the value that the specialty coffee industry creates. The work he and his colleagues are doing at La Revancha in Nicaragua was highlighted in the recent white paper created by the Sustainability Council, available here.

Hernando Duque, from the Colombian Coffee Federation, talked about the work they are doing to understand the situation of workers in Colombia. Labor is key for coffee production in Colombia, and it can represent more than 70% of production cost. The federation is conducting country-wide research to understand the situation of workers be able to support farmers to improve productivity and support workers to improve their livelihoods.

Stacy Bocskor from Allegro Coffee talked about the importance of industry engagement on this issue. She challenged coffee buyers to ask about workers conditions when visiting coffee farms, to visit the facilities where workers live, and to have conversations with workers too. She admitted there are not easy solutions to this issue, but that roasters need to do more to learn about it and engage with workers.

The discussion that came from the room was very rich. Several farmers and NGO’s working in the field highlighted that this is a pressing issue that is becoming more and more relevant for coffee production. They agreed that without industry engagement, not much can be done. The coffee industry needs to step up to the challenge and work with their supply chains to address this issue on ways that work for every link in the supply chain.

As mentioned previously, SCAA recently released a white paper that aims to educate coffee professionals on this issue and make recommendations that the coffee industry and NGO’s can follow to engage with workers. The recommendations range from working with existing coffee certifications, engaging with existing policy initiatives, mapping your supply chains, and creating new models such as the one in La Revancha.

We still have a lot to learn about the situation of farmworkers in coffee. In most cases, labor represents the highest part of cost of production in coffee and workers are the most vulnerable group involved in coffee. Farmers understand that the issue of labor in coffee will become more challenging in the future. Farmers also understand that the coffee industry (importers, roasters, brands) need to be part of the discussion and the solution. The issue can’t be solved by simply asking more from farmers. It is an issue that impacts the whole industry, and only with the participation of importers, roasters, and brands will we improve the workers’ situation and the long-term sustainability of coffee.

Miguel Zamora is the Head of Americas Region for UTZ and current Chair of the SCAA Sustainability Council. Miguel has been involved in agriculture for over 20 years. His work focuses on building and strengthening sustainable supply chains while creating opportunities for sustainable trade between farming communities and the coffee industry. Miguel is a board member of Food 4 Farmers. He holds an Agricultural Engineering degree from Zamorano University in Honduras and a Masters in Agricultural Economics from Michigan State University.