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Working to Help Coffee’s Children

Industry Challenges to Improvements in Child Labor
When the Ivory Coast slavery scandal broke, the three major North American coffee associations issued public statements strongly condemning the situation, urging all producing nations to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, and calling on signatories of the Convention to take necessary measures to ensure its effective implementation.

For a long time, the industry was able to essentially ignore issues outside of its direct control, such as child labor in coffee producing countries. In today’s media climate, this is no longer the case. And, since development projects tend to have a long-term perspective and gradual impact, businesses have a proactive role to play alongside international agencies, governments and industry associations in order to encourage more rapid and effective progress and mitigate potential public relations risks.

Industry associations have a role to play, notes the SCAA statement, “Ultimately, local enforcement is necessary to prohibit and stop illegal child labor. Although trade associations cannot literally act as ‘local enforcement’ in producing nations, trade associations can take the lead in directing attention to areas where these conditions exist and encouraging their members to find alternative sources of supply. Trade associations, by providing a common forum for discussion of the issues, can also help their members to achieve the delicate balance between ethical sourcing, foreign sovereignty, and corporate earnings that arise from purchasing tropical agricultural products from developing countries.”

While public positions against child labor are crucial, leaving the implementation and enforcement of such policies to corrupt governments of impoverished nations does not offer much confidence to businesses that are susceptible to public scrutiny and even negative consumer demands. Countries are under extreme economic pressures, and the global trading trend is to drive down prices. In their bid to compete for a low-priced sale, local producers often do whatever is necessary to bend the laws, or turn a blind eye to infractions with the assumption they won’t get caught. This fact directly impacts companies’ and industry initiatives working to dispel consumer concerns that their coffee may be tainted with child labor.

A further challenge is that international standards outlined and promoted by the ILO and IPEC are non-binding. The laws of individual countries define children and child-appropriate work differently, using different ages for different types of work. Add to that uneven enforcement of these laws, and the reality of the situation and real progress becomes obscured to agencies, businesses and consumers alike. Media reports and growing consumer activism make it risky and inadvisable for companies to sit back and wait for progress of international agencies and programs to be reported.

In spring 2000, a television news report by San Francisco ABC7’s Dan Noyes found that “Labor rights groups (say) that American companies are not using the power they have to keep children from being exploited. According to Guatemalan law, it’s illegal for children under 14 to work - but we spoke with children as young as 6-years-old, working the plantations day in and day out to earn less than a dollar a day. Some live in open-air bunkhouses, hundreds crammed into small sleeping areas. They bathe, and wash dishes and clothing all in the same tub.”2

Many child advocates agree that there are rampant problems with enforcement of laws and policies. In their 1999 study of the Guatemalan coffee industry, the Commission for the Verification of Corporate Codes of Conduct (COVERCO) found that “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.”

Another complexity is to understand that not all child labor is bad. In coffee communities, children working alongside their families in the coffee fields is culturally appropriate - children learn as they work, participate in family activities, learn to be productive members of society, and help their families be more viable. The key is when children are working - are they also in school and are they together with their families? Many child advocates would agree that, in this situation, child labor is not necessarily harmful to them, though it is a delicate and difficult balance to strike.

Promising Models to Improve the Plight of Coffee’s Children
The complexity and enormity of the endeavor to reduce child labor in coffee and offer concrete alternatives means that real progress will be a long time coming. While international organizations and trade associations deal with larger policy issues moving local governments and NGOs forward, some concrete solutions are being offered by non-profit organizations working with coffee companies, particularly within the specialty sector. New market alternatives such as Fair Trade, development projects through Coffee Kids or other non-profit development organizations, and codes of conduct implemented for coffee suppliers, are three concrete opportunities for making an impact immediately on farming communities and child workers.

Fair Trade and other Direct Trade initiatives: According to the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) in Bonn, Germany, the criteria required for fair trade certification were created taking into account relevant ILO conventions concerning child labor (29, 105 and 138). Under the criteria for coffee, there can be no forced labor, and, because fair trade works with family farms, the children are not working under harmful conditions. Furthermore, the minimum price criteria provide families with a dignified standard of living, eliminating the need for children to work for wages. Many cooperatives within the fair trade network use premiums from their fair trade coffee sales to provide scholarship programs to keep kids in school instead of in the fields.

Direct trade relationships with estates as well, offer more opportunities for companies to verify whether child labor is employed or not. Independent verification is crucial though, since estate owners control what visitors and buyers witness and their interaction with workers during visits. In a direct trade relationship, companies can also exert more control as buyers over estate conduct and treatment of workers and children.

Development Projects: Coffee Kids’ key objectives are to keep kids in school and to provide economic alternatives in the coffee communities in which they work. The Hijos del Campo scholarship program in Costa Rica is one key initiative that Coffee Kids donations help to fund. Through the COOCAFE coffee cooperative, funds are provided to send children to school as well as to improve school facilities and infrastructure, provide bus transportation and obtain trained teachers. In a growing number of communities, Coffee Kids’ micro-credit programs are targeted toward helping women develop small businesses to earn alternative sources of income to free them from their economic vulnerability to coffee commodity market swings. The results of these programs, this year in particular, are keeping families together so that men don’t have to go off to look for other work, keeping kids in school and providing them with a more nutritious diet.

Codes of Conduct and Sourcing Guidelines: A handful of companies have begun to implement their own codes of conduct and sourcing guidelines, some of which specifically bar the use of children in the making of company products. Frequently, though, consumers and labor advocacy groups remain skeptical of such initiatives. Many codes of conduct have been criticized for being difficult to monitor by third parties, and therefore, for amounting to little more than window-dressing. Few companies have voluntarily gone beyond such a code to ensure that children removed from the workplace had access to other opportunities, such as school, or vocational training. Enforceable, independently monitored guidelines ensure their effectiveness to both businesses and consumers.

Industry Collaboration: The SCAA points out that “trade associations can take the lead in directing attention to areas where (…harsh child labor…) conditions exist and encouraging their members to find alternative sources of supply. Trade associations, by providing a common forum for discussion of the issues, can also help their members to achieve the delicate balance between ethical sourcing, foreign sovereignty, and corporate earnings that arise from purchasing tropical agricultural products from developing countries.” Other areas for potential collaboration include lobbying and advocacy in international policy discussions, such as those that have taken place between the ILO, ICO, USDOL and the coffee industry.

Coordinated efforts on the part of major corporations, significant buyersand/or industry associations can send a strong signal to producing country governments and industry, and international agencies to encourage them to take action on critical issues. One historic moment that highlights such a successful industry collaboration came as the result of the Folgers Boycott in 1991. The boycott, led by the solidarity group, Neighbor to Neighbor, was established with the initial demand that Folgers stop buying El Salvador coffee to encourage quicker resolution to the decade old civil war and related human rights abuses. The demands of the consumer activists were finally met in the form of full page advertisements taken out in all of the major newspapers in El Salvador by the big three national roasters - Folgers, Maxwell House and Nestle - with a strong statement in support of the ongoing peace process in New York. The high profile alliance of the three companies brought their considerable influence to bear on the parties negotiating the peace accords, and in the end contributed to the signing of the accords and peace for El Salvador. A similar coordinated effort could be constructed around child labor policies and their enforcement. And, because coffee importers and roasters are “#1 clients” of producing countries, such efforts could potentially result in more expeditious action and subsequent impact than ILO and other NGO activities are able to produce.

Taking Care of Coffee’s Children
Child labor may always be a reality of life in coffee producing countries, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be harmful to children. In an industry that continues to report record profits, the disparity in the economic situations of farmers and farm workers, industry players, and consumers is dramatic. Unless consumers and industry decide to share the benefits of trade fairly with producer partners, exploitative child labor will continue to exist in the coffee industry. Until now, many companies have turned a blind eye to the issue of child labor mainly because they feel like there is nothing they can do, its not their responsibility, or they simply don’t know what to do. As outlined in this article, opportunities to make a difference on the child labor issue do exist right now, and new, innovative opportunities can be developed with industry commitment, foresight and collaboration. The coffee industry must determine if it is up to the task of improving the situation of child labor, then move forward with committed action for the benefit of all industry stakeholders - most importantly for coffee’s children.

Foot Notes:
1)   The Political Economy of Child Labor and Its Impacts on International Business”, Business Economics, July 2000, S.L. Bachman

2)   ABC-7 News, Feb. 3, 2000, I-Team revealed that children are working very hard to pick beans for your morning cup of coffee.


Tea & Coffee - February/March 2002


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