Vision Check – 25 Magazine, Issue 10

Vision Check – 25 Magazine, Issue 10

FForces of disruption in agricultural supply chains – intensifying production demands, accelerating climate change, an urbanizing labor force – have led to marginal incomes at the production level for both farmers and farmworkers, but the latter remain largely hidden in coffee price discourse.

ANDREA OTTE asks: Why does farmworker invisibility persist? What can be done? Photos by JUAN PÁEZ.

This low profitability, combined with difficult, often dangerous working conditions and discrimination against women, migrants, and minorities, has led to circumstances of profound hardship and uncertainty for many farmworkers. To challenge this, we often look to premiums associated with certifications and the specialty coffee community. These markets are thought to provide a more equal distribution of wealth and create accountability to uphold social and environmental standards through transparency mechanisms. However, for many of us, our understanding of these processes often stops at the farmgate. Are these movements, and our industry as a whole, doing enough to counteract rising inequality and provide a decent standard of living for farmworkers and their families?

Within the coffee industry, when we speak about challenging structural inequalities, we tend to repeat narratives which discuss the positive impacts of creating simple, often bilateral relationships between buyers and farmers. Though well-intentioned, these are typically incorrect representations of wide and complex networks, which include laborers, logistics persons, financial institutions, members of local communities, and more. Even the concept of “direct trade” suggests that reducing the number of actors involved within a particular transaction will capture additional value that is otherwise going to those “in the middle.” But what happens to the extra value, once created? While some farmers (and roasters, retailers, etc.) may choose to distribute extra income to their employees, there are rarely mandates which require such investments. In such a system that focuses merely on those directly involved in a transaction, the decision of how to apply the proceeds of that transaction does not necessarily include those outside of it. For farmworkers, their existence outside of the relationship between farmer and buyer jeopardizes both their contributions and the risks associated with their labor.

This invisibility is embedded in other respects as well. So little is known about coffee farmworkers that existing data on working conditions and worker demographics is frequently missing or incomplete in academic research and industry literature alike. Exceptions, such as the SCA’s recent white paper Farmworkers and Coffee: The Case for Inclusion and articles such as those by industry leaders Michael Sheridan and Miguel Zamora, are some of the few high-profile responses which specifically examine conditions and challenges for farmworkers. The academic community is much the same, with only a small handful of papers focusing on farm labor outside the context of wider social or environmental issues. And even in these cases, the level of hard data is regretfully low.

These holes in our understanding can be dangerous. For example, the common assumption that workers are primarily young able-bodied men can lead to misconceptions about what types of challenges are faced by these communities, many of whom are frequently women, children, elderly people, and indigenous minorities who have nuanced sets of needs and motivations. These misconceptions may result in the construction of well-intentioned interventions organized around only the most visible constituents of the population. Furthermore, our lack of incorporation of farmwork (family labor as well as hired) into cost of production calculations produces an inadequate valuation of necessary resources; particularly risky considering that labor accounts for the majority of production costs on nearly every coffee farm worldwide. As a result, where farmers are unable to pay competitive wages or where other opportunities for work exist, labor shortages are becoming common, increasing pressure to use unscrupulous labor brokers or to abandon farms altogether.

Karen Farjado (14) only learned how to pick coffee six months ago from her mother. She only picks on school holidays “because it is very heavy.” She dreams of being a doctor.

In reality, the undervaluation of labor helps keep the price of coffee artificially low – even at the specialty level – and meaningful improvements will require investment beyond Fairtrade minimums or even most specialty premiums. Similar to other industries– textiles and electronics, for example – in which cheap labor is exploited in return for a falsely affordable product, coffee depends on a vast network of flexible, just-in-time hands to ensure that the most foundational activities are carried out for the rest of us. Yet, dissimilarly to those other products, in coffee, laborers hide behind another community which has also received unequal representation – smallholder farmers. But while the situation for farmers has been widely and unilaterally discussed as untenable and garners attention worldwide, farmworkers have largely remained hidden. The coffee industry must face the fact: This dispersion of reputational risk, via farmers, serves a significant benefit to those of us who profit from a cheap labor supply, at the expense of farmworkers and their families. This situation cannot, and should not, hold any longer.

A farmer waits for their pay in the Marsella cooperative for their coffee harvest. While they wait, a screen shows the fluctuating coffee price in real time.
Who’s Responsible?

While the evidence clearly points to the need for deeper and more meaningful engagement with farmworkers in our supply chain, it also raises questions about who is responsible for this engagement, morally as well as financially. Calls for improvement of working conditions are increasing due to pressures such as labor shortages and new government regulations; however, many buyers remain hesitant to take on this issue alone. The challenges associated with a labor force which remains highly transitory, informal, and rural makes engagement by the international community particularly difficult. Equally, individual farmers, many of whom are operating at or below cost of production already, can only be expected to do what is within their capacity. Certifications such as Fairtrade, whom many have called on for solutions, have made recent improvements to standards for worker wellbeing, but the daily implementation of such standards cannot be adequately enforced for obvious reasons.

A farmworker walks up a hill of La Piscina with hoses to water young coffee plants on the high part of the mountain.

With such embedded inequities and a developing data set, where and by whom should improvements begin? The willingness of the specialty sector to engage in debate over difficult issues is one of its benefits, though resources may be limited through our individual companies or organizations. Multi-stakeholder initiatives, which pool the resources (and disperse the risks) of engagement with multilateral issues, have often produced better results than those of a single company or individual, particularly where local knowledge is crucial. The following case study presents an example of what effective multi-stakeholder engagement could look like in this field. Despite the project’s small size, its ability to create buy-in from farmers and to effectively utilize diverse resources has positive implications for what future initiatives could achieve. While the project began from broader conversations about supply chain inequity, human rights, and welfare, the main operational goals for the project were targeted towards the localized and specific needs of farmers and workers.

Case Study: Aguadas Cooperative

In Colombia, the world’s largest producer of washed Arabica, an aging labor force and opportunity costs in other industries have seen a steady increase in labor shortages year on year. A 2014 study by the nonprofit Verité found that the average age of the country’s approximately 600,000 farmworkers is a startling 55 years old. This is partly due to a youth exodus as the poor conditions, low pay, and long hours of coffee work are well known and unattractive to young people. Complicating matters, most farmworkers in Colombia already earn above the country’s minimum wage, which is set far below what is required for a decent standard of living. Therefore, regulations which focus on minimum wage compliance are ineffective at retaining workers; nor do they address other issues which are inherent to farmwork, such as health and safety concerns and workplace treatment.

In 2017, with the support of nine separate organizations, a pilot project began in Colombia focusing on farmworker wellbeing. The project, now in its third year, involves the farmers and farmworkers of the Aguadas cooperative, located in the department of Caldas. Working alongside the cooperative are RGC Coffee, a Canadian importer, and Solidaridad, a Netherlands-based NGO. These three organizations form the core of the project, providing on-the-ground implementation, market channels, and project development. Six other organizations, including the SCA, provided baseline assessment, advisory support, and topic engagement within the wider industry. Though this plurality of voices and expertise is impressive, the success of the program came down to engagement by the farmers and workers themselves.

One of the most innovative aspects of the project is its use of existing resources to incorporate farmworkers into the local supply chain. The cooperative, by vote, agreed to use the proceeds from the Fairtrade social premium – for them, a finite but more or less reliable resource – to fund the project, ensuring that the individual farmer would not be financially burdened with additional costs. Upon conducting a baseline survey, project leaders realized that low wages were not the only reason for labor divestment. Thus, the project’s strategies were designed around six separate services or improvements. Alternative ways of distributing wealth were identified that were attractive to both employers and employees, such as inclusion of workers in benefits schemes. Savings programs and accident insurance addressed some of the toughest institutional barriers for workers to improve their livelihoods.

In the case of Aguadas, by not directly focusing on the final product (the physical output of particular farms and the transaction of payments), labor is treated not as an expendable commodity but as a strategic partnership. These targeted strategies allow workers directly into streams of value capture and facilitate the assessment of workers, by themselves and others, as full contributing actors in the supply chain. The project has been so successful in this respect that a second cooperative in Caldas, Alto Occidente, has recently begun its own version. As pointed out by Angela Pelaez, the Sustainability Director for RGC, this second cooperative has seen much faster registration for the program by workers, due to the positive word of mouth from their neighbors in the department.

While the results from Aguadas may not speak for all farmworkers, they provide a positive example of a method by which a complex and systemic issue can be addressed with the full support of the community, both local and international. Active participation in the creation of support mechanisms for workers is possible, and action does not need to come solely from farmers or from financial transactions alone. Through increased recognition, research, and investment in farm labor, the coffee industry can take responsibility for the wellbeing of a community on which we all depend.

ANDREA OTTE, a Trader and Marketer at Twin & Twin Trading, holds an MSc in Development and International Business from the University of London. Special thanks to Angela Pelaez, RGC Coffee, and the members of the Aguadas Cooperative. To learn more, visit:

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