How Low Employee Morale Jeopardizes Coffee Supply

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By Kim Elena Ionescu, SCAA Director of Sustainability

Coffee buyers, farmers, traders and baristas are becoming more aware of the important role that farm workers play in the quality coffee trade. The Sustainability Council of the SCAA identified that farm worker vulnerability is a key threat to our industry and began to focus on this important group in 2015. The more we read, the more obvious it became that we needed better information, in particular to understand how farm workers see themselves. 

A new study (en español) by the SCAA and Solidaridad of farm workers in Nicaragua and Colombia helps to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge. Through interviews, focus groups and a literature review, Solidaridad developed a profile of each country’s coffee labor market and the advantages and challenges each one faces. Based on this characterization, the study makes recommendations for stakeholders – all of us – who depend on farm workers during the coffee harvest. 

Nicaragua and Colombia were selected based on their importance to the specialty coffee industry, relevant similarities and differences in their labor markets, and the willingness of farmers and producer organizations in these two countries to give their time and experiences to the study. It is not a comparison of the two, nor should it be interpreted that these countries or their farm worker populations are more vulnerable than farm workers in other coffee-producing countries. 

Among the many things I learned from this study, what nags at me most is the observation that workers don’t feel proud to work in coffee. While I know it’s idealistic to imagine that everyone would feel proud all the time, my career in coffee has been shaped by colleagues, mentors, volunteers, farmers, and industry luminaries of all kinds whose pride in their work buoys them in the face of obstacles that seem insurmountable (as well as more financially lucrative careers). As we develop strategies to deliver higher wages to workers, we should likewise keep in mind how many factors contribute to the choices we make, and the fact that farm workers consider a similar array of priorities in their decision-making.

Photo by Julio Florez

kim elenaKim Elena Ionescu is the Director of Sustainability at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), where she works on behalf of coffee-centric businesses and organizations both large and small in the United States and beyond to tackle the challenges coffee faces now and in the future. Before joining SCAA, Kim spent a decade buying coffee and working directly with coffee farmers at Counter Culture Coffee in North Carolina and directing the company’s environmental and social sustainability strategy. Kim has a B.A. in English and Spanish from Tufts University, which liberal arts degree led her to seek employment as a barista without realizing it was the gateway to a complex and fascinating global industry.