the labor behind our cups of coffee

If the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil were a country, it would be the largest coffee producing country in the world.  That’s how much coffee is grown in Minas.  Of the 280,000 people involved in the production of coffee in the state in 2009, over 230,000 were farm workers according to the Brazilian Institute of Statistics (IBGE).

According to the IBGE’s (2009) household survey, 80% of the paid coffee workers in Minas are coffee pickers and other farm workers doing manual, physically intense labor.   Of these farm workers:

  • 60% are not registered with the government by their employers (and would not receive legal benefits as required by Brazilian law)
  • They very rarely receive the legal subsidies for transport, housing, food, education and health specified by law
  • 2/3 of the males and 3/4 of the women make less than the legal minimum wage
  • Their average salary is 24% of the governmental estimated living wage

In the state of Sao Paulo, the second biggest producer of Arabica coffee in Brazil, the average salary and registration with the government for this group of workers was even worse.   Even in places such as Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo where strong labor laws and good economic situations (for Latin America) could mean that coffee pickers and other farm workers in coffee enjoy safe and fair working conditions, the real situation is farm from that reality for most farm workers.

In other coffee producing countries in the world, obtaining information about farm workers is a bigger challenge.  Labor unions, labor ministries and other organizations do not seem to have information beyond very general estimates; yet, most of them agree the situation of farm workers needs significant improvement.

According to the Nicaragua Association of Rural Workers (ATC) (2011), primary violations of workers rights in the coffee sector include failure to pay the minimum wage for regular farm workers and coffee pickers, all legal salaries, and extra hours or legal benefits.  In addition to this, ATC reports discrimination against and lack of support for pregnant women working on coffee farms.  ATC estimated that there could be 200,000 farm workers involved in coffee, although no official numbers seem to exist.

In addition, the ENTERATE project and the International Initiative to End Child Labor report that “on coffee plantations [in Nicaragua], child and adolescent workers have very little voice, are provided with little or no compensation, and face a range of other rights violations.”  In particular, “during harvesting season, working children represent an abundant and easily exploited source of cheap labor and contribute to the decline of wages. To meet a daily production quota in order to receive their meager wages, workers in some farms are forced to bring their children to work with them”.

From informal conversations with coffee farmers and labor groups in Guatemala, I hear that the situation there is even worse.  It is common that employers do not allow freedom of association, and farm workers might receive less than half the minimum wage.  The working and living conditions on coffee farms in Guatemala can be significantly worse than those in Brazil or even Nicaragua.  In late 2010, in Quetzaltengango, Guatemala, 19 coffee pickers died and 64 others got injured in a truck accident when they were transported in very unsafe conditions to work on a coffee farm. These were men, women and children who were lured under a promise of salary that was already below the minimum wage.  Survivors of the accident mentioned they accepted the job to have money to celebrate Christmas with their families.

Farm workers in coffee not only work in unfair conditions all over the world, but many risk their lives to bring food home to their families and to make sure we drink our cup of coffee everyday in the U.S.

4 thoughts

  1. The first time I saw the coffee harvest in Nicaragua it changed the way I see coffee forever. I saw a fairly nice plantation, the workers were cared for and while there were a few teenagers working, they all looked to be over 16. That said, the sheer amount of dirty, hard work that goes into a cup of coffee is astounding. I’ve heard many a horror story about Starbucks’ farms in Nicaragua. Even beyond the work is the way that coffee changes the economic and agricultural landscape of Latin America.

    I made this blog post to try and illustrate just how much goes into a cup of coffee.

    Great blog, and great work you’re doing.

    • Hi,
      I think that coffee picking and other activities that farm worker perform (applying pesticides, etc) are some of the hardest working jobs in the whole coffee value chain. I think we, as coffee consumers, should be aware of that so we can make the right decisions when we buy coffee. Many consumers will chose a more sustainable cup of coffee if presented with the right information and right alternatives.

  2. Pingback: Beans | Cape Town to Nairobi Overland

  3. Pingback: “we need to educate the coffee industry” | coffee gente - the people in coffee

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