Human Trafficking in Context: Coffee Production


A Gallup poll conducted in 2012 reported just under a third of the United States population drink at least one cup of coffee on an average day, while regular coffee drinkers reported drinking just under three cups of coffee on an average day. Looking back, these numbers have changed negligibly from 1999 to 2012. About a quarter of the people polled considered themselves to be addicted to coffee, but only about a tenth of those polled reported wanting to cut back on their coffee consumption.

From these statistics, it is clear coffee is a major part of US culture, but like many other commodities Americans consume, we do not consider where the coffee we drink daily comes from. Some of the countries that produce the coffee we consume regularly include: Colombia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Yemen, Indonesia, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and within the US, Hawaii.

Coffee farms around the world provide many opportunities for exploitation. In 2012, the US Department of Labor discovered widespread labor violations on coffee farms in our own country in Hawaii. Some of these labor violations include “failure to pay minimum wage and overtime, exploiting migrant workers, illegally hiring coffee pickers as independent contractors, and exploiting children as young as five years old to pick coffee cherries.” These coffee farm workers are some of the most vulnerable people involved in coffee production and face many challenges.

Existing Challenges

One major challenge many coffee farm workers face is dealing with their housing circumstances. Many farm workers will live on the farms during harvest season and subsequently will face harsh housing conditions. Often times, they will live in large one-room buildings, similar to that of a warehouse, in which forty to sixty workers and their families live with little access to mattresses, blankets, privacy, or security. In these conditions, coffee farm workers also have access to a limited number of restrooms, forcing many to relieve themselves in the coffee fields and shower in nearby rivers. According to Miguel Zamora, a writer for Roast Magazine, housing conditions is one of the most important issues coffee farm workers would like to see improved.

The working conditions coffee farm workers are forced to endure are also horrendous. Often times workers are not even given the proper protective equipment necessary to complete the work safely and to the best of their ability. It is not uncommon for workers to be expected to bring their own rain boots, to improvise ponchos (typically made from trash bags), and bring their own machetes. Furthermore, coffee farm workers do typically not have access to the training or protection necessary for applying pesticides, despite this being an extremely dangerous part of the job even for those who do have access to training and protection.

These awful working conditions are accompanied by wages comparable to that of a sweatshop. In Guatemala for example, coffee farm workers must pick a quota of 100 pounds per day in order to receive the minimum wage of three dollars per day which plantation owners can get away with because there are no contracts between the workers and the employer. These workers are also forced work overtime with no compensation and work with no legally mandated employee benefits.

Child Labor

Children have ultimately no voice and receive no compensation for their labor within coffee farming. For this reason, children become an abundant and easily exploited source of cheap labor during harvest season. Additionally, coffee farm workers will also sometimes pull their children out from school in order to meet their daily quotas. However, since women and children are typically hired temporarily, or under the table all together, and are paid little to nothing for their work, even less than adult men doing the same job, child labor ultimately drives down wages within the coffee farming industry.

Children picking coffee beans in Colombia.

Child labor also contributes to an extreme cycle of poverty in regions where coffee is farmed. When the price of coffee increases in regions like the US, the push to yank children from school and send them to work in the coffee fields also increase. Additionally, when the price of coffee drops, poverty increases in the regions that depend on the sales of the crop and therefore can also keep children from school. In a recent study of coffee plantations in Guatemala, it was revealed only about thirteen percent of coffee workers had completed their primary education. Children being pulled from school to work in these plantations are ultimately being kept from their education and are prevented from escaping the poverty their parents are likely trapped in.

Additionally, these workers are often enslaved through debt peonage to the plantation owners they work under.  Due to the long days workers are forced to work, lack of transportation, or constraints on where they may travel, the only source of essential goods are the shops owned by the plantation owners. The plantation owners are then able to inflate the prices of their goods which combines with the non-livable wages workers are paid to create a debt the workers now owe to the plantation owner. These debts, along with lack of education for children, creates generations of families working on these plantations.

What’s Being Done?

In many of the countries in which these labor rights are being violated, there are laws prohibiting such violations. However, agricultural workers are not guaranteed these basic labor rights, such as the right to organize which may prevent further rights violations. Plantation owners take advantage of the control they have over their workforce to keep farm workers from organizing to demand their rights. One response that has been utilized to combat the control plantation owners have over their workers is the formation of “Fair Trade.”

Fair Trade was created to give small landowning farmers access to markets through cooperatives rather than having

The label attached to products that come from “Fair Trade Certified” farms or trade.

to rely on intermediaries, but has become a way through which we are beginning to regulate labor practices within the coffee industry. In order to become “Fair Trade Certified,” farms must meet the social, economic, and environmental standards created by Fair Trade International.

Fair Trade works by setting a price floor per pound and adds social premium meant to be invested in local development projects that benefit the farming community. Fair Trade International is involved in vetting the trade process and give co-ops access to markets and requires importer to establish long-term purchasing agreements, however, prices are still very low compared to retail prices charged for coffee in the US.

In order to enforce labor standards set by Fair Trade International, farms are audited onsite by an official certifier, which involves conversations with both farm workers and farm owners and can last several days. Following an initial audit, two additional audits are required within three years, along with possible unannounced visits. Although auditing these farms is an excellent step in the right direction, it is unclear how well certifiers are trained to identify forced labor, how much effort these certifiers put into finding it, and whether any Fair Trade certifiers have ever found indicators of forced labor within a coffee co-op.

While Fair Trade is a good idea in theory, this approach to combating the forced labor and labor rights violations in coffee farms and other forms of agriculture only gives consumers a choice between “coffee with exploitation” versus “coffee with less exploitation.” This approach does not tackle the systemic and cultural circumstances that allow these coffee plantations to persist with its labor rights violations and forced labor.

Why It Matters [in context]

Common perception of what human trafficking is.

When human trafficking is discussed, it is typically in the context of sex trafficking. The first image that usually comes to mind when thinking about human trafficking is a young woman in shackles, or ties, with her mouth covered, and if you can see her eyes, there is fear in them. This is an extremely emotionally charged image, but it does not represent all forms of human trafficking and when we view only this type of human trafficking, many other will suffer in other sectors of the economy. Sex trafficking is a horrific practice that is also tangled in many social and cultural circumstances, but is given more visibility than labor trafficking because sexual violations and violence is seen as so much more heinous than other human right violations. Additionally, labor trafficking forces people in developed countries, such as ourselves, to take a hard look at the products we consume and the actions we may be doing without thought that furthers the exploitation of agriculture workers in other parts of the world. For these reasons, labor trafficking remains an topic that does not get discussed.

Because the regions in which this forced labor happens depend heavily on the crop they are harvesting, there is also a call for migrant workers to come to these large plantations to work which opens workers up for even more exploitation. This is a never ending cycle based on exploitation of those who are already marginalized and at the bottom of the societal food chain. This cycle will never end unless this forced labor and exploitation is given the same time and consideration sex trafficking is so often given.





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