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Human Trafficking Center

Farmers and Laborers in the Global Coffee Supply Chain


Jan 2015



By Seth Daire, HTC associate

Coffee is the second most valuable commodity exported by developing countries, but despite its economic significance, coffee production represents a precarious livelihood for both coffee farmers and laborers. Though coffee prices have been rising recently, green coffee prices on the commodity market are volatile. The majority of the world’s coffee producers are caught in a commodity trap where they have little leverage on pricing. Despite the focus on small farmers in ethical trade efforts, the majority of the money in the coffee chain is made at cafes and stores, not farms. Laborers are often ignored, making them the most vulnerable people within the coffee supply chain.

The Farmers

Coffee farmers are categorized by smallholders (those producing on less than 25 acres) and estates (those producing on more than 25 acres, also referred to as plantations or largeholders).  Over half of the global coffee supply is produced by smallholders—the World Bank estimates there are 25 million smallholders in developing countries whose sole income is coffee and who support an average of five family members. Their farms may lack sanitation, health care, and good housing. Smallholders may make use of temporary workers during harvest.

Even though smallholders tend to be more efficient and environmentally sustainable and treat their workers better than estates, they don’t have the resources to stay profitable and competitive when prices drop.

In contrast, estates tend to have access to easier credit, political influence, and economies of scale. Medium to large estates depend on seasonal labor. Large estates are more likely to be exploitive than small farms. Because harvesting coffee is a seasonal job, migrant labor systems have developed for estates, often from impoverished regions. Further, work conditions and pay may be substandard.

The Laborers

Laborers can be divided into four categories. Family members typically run smallholder farms. Fixed-salary laborers are paid monthly and live on or near the plantation. Temporary harvest laborers are mostly migrant workers. Casual laborers are workers employed between harvests.

Because migrant workers are typically from other regions and very dependent on their income, they may be susceptible to labor abuses. Privacy, safety, sanitation, and adequate housing are often lacking for migrant laborers. In some cases, 40-60 families will live together in a warehouse-like building. Low wages and a lack of signed contracts in some countries are also problematic.

It’s difficult to determine how much coffee is produced by forced labor today, as there has been little investigation. Historically, coffee was produced by slave labor, most notably in countries like Brazil. While forced labor is illegal in coffee exporting countries, it hasn’t been eliminated.

Here are a few of the documented cases of forced labor since 2000:

  • Verité carried out research in 2009 and 20011, discovering instances of forced labor in Guatemala among migrant workers, workers who lived near the farms, and workers who lived at farms year round.
  • Anti-Slavery International, in a 2004 report on the cocoa industry in Côte d’Ivoire, reported that children and young men “are under the control of the labour contractor and have often been trafficked from neighboring countries.”
  • In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a suit against four farms in Hawaii that employed Thai farm workers in a debt bondage situation from 2003 to 2007. The coffee companies involved agreed to pay a settlement to affected workers. A U.S.-based recruitment agency, Global Horizons, was also involved.

There are organizations that rate businesses on how they address forced labor (Not For Sale) and eco-social concerns (Fair World Project). While a noble idea, their analysis of coffee roasters is lazy and biased, placing too much faith in Fairtrade certification. Further, roasters who don’t have certifications, outside audits, certain codes, or unions are looked down upon in these reports. Since their information is collected from publicly available information and voluntary surveys, it’s clear that Not For Sale and Fair World Project are limited in what they know about how these roasters treat their employees, vendors, or coffee producers.  It would be an interesting research project to see what effect, if any, Fairtrade certification has on forced labor, since evidence is currently lacking to support that connection.

Roast Magazine’s Daily Coffee News is one of the few sources for current news about coffee farm and labor issues. Coffee farmers do have advocates, but it’s still a challenge for them. The rights of coffee laborers are starting to garner global attention, but more research is needed about their working conditions and pay.

(Look for a follow-up post on the topic of Fairtrade later this week)

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC.

Photo: coffee cherries via Creative Commons


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2 Responses to “Farmers and Laborers in the Global Coffee Supply Chain”

  1. The Contributions of Gender Roles and Language to Modern Slavery in the Brazilian Coffee Industry – Coffee and Slavery

    […] when used. Rather, coffee plantation owners prefer call the people working in their fields “temporary workers.” Compared to “slave,” the term “temporary worker” seems to be more […]

  2. Is Fairtrade Coffee the Answer? | Human Trafficking Center

    […] (This post is the second in a series on forced labor in the coffee supply chain and Fairtrade coffee. Read the first blog post here.) […]

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