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The Plight of Coffee’s Children

Family Farms
The primary purpose of family farms is to support the families that operate them. They typically produce a variety of subsistence crops, in addition to at least one “cash” or export crop, such as coffee. The income the family receives from coffee is used to buy products that cannot be produced on the farm, and pay for other family expenses such as medicines and school fees when they can afford it. On family farms, children are often expected to help support the viability of the family unit. Children growing up on farms begin to work at an early age, and they often know no other way of life, particularly if they lack access to education. In many agrarian societies, children as young as five years old perform small tasks on the farm. Tasks performed by children include helping in the house, harvesting subsistence crops, caring for siblings, picking or sorting coffee cherries or other work relating to the coffee harvest. As part of a family unit, the children are not frequently exposed to dangerous conditions that jeopardize their health and safety.

Price, Poverty and Cheap Labor
The foremost contributing factor to all of these forms of child labor is poverty. The hard life of an agricultural worker - receiving little pay for backbreaking work - requires that all family members support the survival of the family unit. Parents sell their children into bonded labor because they are too poor and see little other alternative. Estate workers get paid too little, and family farmers get prices that are too low that allow them the liberty to not have their kids work. The resulting link between low price, poverty and child labor is inextricable. “Even at a good price,” says Thys of the ILRF, “the distribution of the price is the issue, higher prices do not necessarily translate into higher incomes for workers. The key is ensuring the fair distribution of the price.”

Coffee is a labor-intensive product to cultivate, harvest and process. Extra care to maintain a standard of quality on the farm and through the processing requires additional time and effort. Coffee experts in producing countries estimate that the amount of labor required to produce a pound of coffee is 2.2 hours. Even at commodity price levels of $1.00, pressure to keep labor costs low is intense. At current prices, which have fallen well below the cost of production, labor costs are being driven down even further.

COVERCO reports that for several years now estate holders have been massively laying off “colonos,” the permanently employed labor on the estate, in favor of hiring cheaper temporary and migrant labors outside the protections of the Guatemalan law. The situation has been exacerbated by this year’s price crisis, and there is evidence that this trend is picking up in other countries as well. In Brazil, both resident workers on plantations and small farmers expelled from their land joined the ranks of migrant and temporary workers that became known as boias-frias or volantes (in English, “floaters”). Because the earnings of many families diminished considerably, they increasingly employed children to bolster family income. Today, child boias-frias and volantes comprise a large number of Brazil’s child workers.

Family farmers typically earn a fraction of the export price for their coffee, since they work through local middlemen or “coyotes” that take a substantial percentage. The family income is subject to the swings of the commodity market, and children work because their parents are unable to earn enough to support the household. Children become productive parts of a family unit, who can produce income to help the family sustain itself and even to help pay for their own school and medical expenses.

Supporting Factors
In addition to poverty, several other factors exacerbate the problem of child labor: inadequate government policy and enforcement, lack of opportunities for education, and societal acceptance. Each of these factors play a critical role in determining whether children work and in what forms of labor they engage:

Inadequate Government Policy and Enforcement
In many countries, governmental policies simply ignore the plight of children. While laws may exist, the lack of surveillance, enforcement, and intervention on the part of governments allows child labor to flourish. Even when violators are caught and prosecuted, penalties are often too small to affect employers’ practices. The lack of NGO and monitoring agencies and the scarcity of resources devoted to improving the situation further contributes to the persistence of child labor. This issue was validated by COVERCO in their 1999 study of the Guatemalan coffee industry. The report states, “The coffee industry in the communities studied demonstrates a lack of commitment to the rule of law in Guatemala. Large majorities in all the communities studied report lack of payment of overtime and legally mandated employee benefits. Almost half report lack of compliance with the legally mandated minimum wage. Anecdotal evidence from our focus groups demonstrates similar problems with child labor, discrimination against women, legally-mandated health and safety programs, educational services and hygienic living conditions.”

Lack of Education
Sparse economic resources of developing countries are often spent in urban versus rural areas, further encouraging the neglect of education for families in the agriculture sector. In coffee communities, schools are remote and simply inaccessible to most. Children in coffee villages typically must walk for several miles to attend school past the age of 10. Even where school is more accessible, often families cannot afford the fees and supplies. In coffee, typically, the school vacation coincides with the coffee harvest, however, this is hard to control, and when harvest season and school do coincide, large numbers of families send their kids to the fields instead of to school. Children have little say in whether or not they work, and whether they have access to school or opportunities for an alternative vocational choice in their future. Many young boys and girls, once they start working, don’t return to school. On some estates, children of permanent workers may have access to some schooling; but as ILO data indicates, “Primary education facilities are available on most plantations, but are generally found insufficient to enable all children to attend school regularly and complete their primary education.”

Societal Acceptance
In certain cultures, working children are part of an accepted societal norm; child labor is viewed as beneficial to the child, the family, and the society in general. Indonesia’s “Pancasila” ideology states that a child’s foremost duty is to help their parent. An ILO study of child labor in Indonesia notes that “cultural values in Indonesia accept and even encourage child employment as an educational process” that brings understanding of work, personal responsibility, self-discipline, and job satisfaction. Similar attitudes are common in many communities throughout the world. Finally, society in general contributes to child labor through omission, indifference, a lack of awareness, or the acceptance of child labor as a natural and customary way of life. In the economies of countries where the multi-million dollar coffee export industry plays a key role, the lack of serious data and analysis on worker and child labor issues is a testament to this indifference.

The Child Labor Debate: Abolish or Regulate?
While most child rights advocates will agree that at the least the worst forms of child labor must be abolished immediately, they are divided as to the most appropriate approach to improve the lives of the world’s working children. While some support the abolition of all forms of child labor, others argue that its abolition is unrealistic and contrary to the interests of the children themselves. Such advocates emphasize that the issue of child labor must be analyzed within the broader context of social, economic and educational progress in the developing world.

With the recent increased public awareness of child labor, some coffee industry companies have sought a “Certified - no child labor” guarantee like the chocolate industry is considering as a Band-Aid to their public relations quandary. Such quick fix solutions to the broader child labor issue tend to be shortsighted and result in misguided policies.

Collingsworth of the ILRF says, “The ultimate buyer, they don’t want child labor. They are just woefully ignorant. Child labor exists and companies can only claim ignorance for so long before they get caught. It would be a lot more constructive to work in a proactive fashion versus a reactive fashion; setting up programs going in rather than dealing with the public relations crisis. It is much better to have a constructive partnership where industries work with local authorities and put kids in school.” Acting in a reactive manner, he continues, “allows people to question - what is going on here? Is this a cover-up or are you really interested in impacting the situation?”

The child labor issue in agriculture is not likely to disappear any time soon, if ever. Children are going to work in coffee as long as poverty exists in their communities. The challenge for the coffee industry is not to treat child labor as a mere public relations issue, but rather as one component of a broader social and economic agenda to improve industry policy and practice. At the most basic level, better access to school, health care and decent housing is essential for children on both coffee estates and family farms - better wages and prices would help make this possible. The ultimate vision perhaps, is for children in coffee producing communities to live as healthily and carefree as the children of the U.S. specialty coffee community - such an industry transformation would make an unmistakably newsworthy piece for journalists to report around the world.

Numerous international organizations work on behalf of children around the world. In the coffee industry, several initiatives have begun to address child labor and its root causes. Programs such as codes of conduct for suppliers with appropriate enforcement, fair trade initiatives, and community development projects through organizations such as Coffee Kids are providing promising opportunities for children outside of coffee “business as usual.”

Next month, the second article of the series The Plight of Coffee’s Children will analyze programs that address the issue of children in the coffee industry.

Foot Notes:
1:   “General Survey of the Reports relating to Convention 138 and Recommendation No. 146 concerning Minimum Age, Report III (Part 4 B)” (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 1981) 73.

2:   “By the Sweat and Toil of Children: the Use of Child Labor in American Imports,” Bureau of International Labor Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor, July 15, 1994.


Tea & Coffee - January/February 2002
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