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The Plight of Coffee’s Children

This article is the first in a two-part series: this first installment will discuss various aspects of the problem and root causes of child labor in coffee. Its sequel in next month’s issue will look at the steps being taken by industry players, governments, and international agencies to improve the welfare of coffee’s children, and to ensure that coffee fields around the world are free of exploitative child labor.

In May 2001 Knight Ridder Newspapers published a scathing article about the rampant use of child slave labor on cocoa plantations in the Cote d’Avoire. Dailies across the nation carried the story, prompting U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat from Iowa) to call for urgent action on the part of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA) to remedy the situation. After a subsequent Knight Ridder article was published on June 24, 2001, entitled “Some Coffee Beans May Also Be Tainted,” the coffee industry leapt to evaluate its own vulnerability to this controversial issue and potential public relations debacle. Specialty coffee supporters argue that higher prices paid for gourmet beans, and the fact that little if any specialty coffee is sourced from the Ivory Coast, assures that child slave labor is not an issue for specialty consumers. This notion, accurate or not, is unlikely to assuage consumer concerns should the media spotlight turn its focus to coffee. For consumers, the slightest insinuation that any child labor, slave or not, taints specialty coffee beans can make even the finest gourmet coffee leave a bitter taste.

Most child welfare advocates agree that the proper place for a child is in the schoolroom, not the workplace. Even so, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 250 million working children, 120 million of whom work full time. Especially in agricultural communities, children often must work in order to help their families survive. In agriculture, children’s work generally falls within three different contexts: as child slaves or bonded laborers, as migrant or estate workers usually as part of a family unit, or growing up on family farms. Many children work for commercial farms and plantations that produce commodities exclusively for export, making up an estimated 7-12% of the work force on these plantations. Among the products that children help to harvest are cocoa, coffee, coconuts, cotton, fruit and vegetables, jasmine, palm oil, rubber, sisal, sugar cane, tea, tobacco, and vanilla.

Child labor is a complex issue primarily rooted in poverty. A “one size fits all” solution developed in a vacuum in order to avert a potential public relations scandal will not put an end to child labor. A strategy to address the welfare of children in the coffee industry must prioritize the elimination of the most egregious forms of child labor, and take into consideration the root causes and the various forms of child labor in coffee and address each one appropriately.

Children Toiling In The Fields
Traveling throughout Central America and other coffee producing countries around the world, one cannot help but notice the sheer number of young children and adolescents. Recent census statistics show that populations in Latin American countries, contrary to those in the U.S. and Europe, are increasingly younger, ranging from 38-52% of inhabitants under the age of 18. On coffee farms, large and small, the prevalence of children is significant - some playing, others caring for young siblings and still others working alongside their parents. When visiting the fields as a coffee buyer or visitor, one nearly always encounters children beneath the branches of the coffee trees picking the red beans, their nimble hands often outpacing those of their parents.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more children work in agriculture around the world than any other economic sector. Accurate statistics on the prevalence of child labor in coffee are scarce, though anecdotal evidence indicates that the occurrence is widespread in coffee producing countries around the world. While certain forms of “light work” are acceptable for children, most working situations for children do not protect their rights, or provide them access to adequate education and opportunities for their future. Because children’s work is not legally sanctioned in most countries, their presence goes unreported. Largely invisible, child laborers fall through the cracks of existing government protections or monitoring. As an easily subjugated workforce, their voices are not often heard, leaving them subject to low pay (if any), and dangerous working conditions, which affect their health and safety.

Working children suffer consequences of their early employment well into life. According to UNICEF, working adolescents between 13 and 17 have one to two years’ less education than those who do not work. Two years’ less education implies about 20% less in monthly income during active life. The cost of education pays off later in life according to UNICEF - the rise in incomes of salaried urban adults with three more years of primary or secondary level education amounts to between six and eight times the cost of these additional years of education.

Children in agriculture face many safety and health risks. Coffee picking is exhausting work, and for a child’s developing physiology the impact can be damaging. Long hours, hot temperatures, overexposure to sun and snakebites are a constant threat to the well being of coffee’s children. Regular exposure to dangerous chemical fertilizers and pesticides (protective gear is uncommon) that have been banned in the U.S. are still used frequently in coffee production and pose another threat to children. Children are often malnourished and get sick easily, particularly those in the migrant work force. With Central American countries facing famine this harvest season, the welfare of coffee’s children has already diminished even more dramatically.

Various Forms of Children’s Agricultural Work
Each of the three primary categories of child labor has different level of acceptance among child advocates and distinct impacts on the child’s welfare:

Worst forms: Slavery and Bonded Labor
The most exploitative types of child labor - child slavery and bonded child labor - are also the most universally condemned. The exploitation of child labor can generate large profits for whole industries, as child workers provide employers with a low-cost and easily subjugated labor force. The issue in cocoa has revolved specifically around child slave labor.

In the Knight Ridder piece, “Some Coffee Beans May Also Be Tainted,” journalist Sumana Chatterjee writes that “Chocolate isn’t the only American staple tainted by slavery. In addition to being the king of cocoa, Cote d’Avoire is the world’s fourth-largest Robusta coffee grower, after Vietnam, Indonesia and Uganda. The two crops often are grown together, so the taller cacao trees can shade the coffee bushes, and on some farms, young slaves harvest coffee beans as well as the cacao pods that yield cocoa beans.” In the U.S., about 5% of Robusta beans come from the Cote d’Avoire. “As with cocoa, there’s no way to tell whether a shipment of coffee beans contains beans picked by slaves or those picked by paid workers,” the article states.

Since specialty coffee for the most part doesn’t use Robusta, it is unlikely that the child slavery issue affects the specialty coffee industry as it does the cocoa industry, though the distinction is less clear with the commercial coffee brands which use quite a bit of Robusta coffee for their blends. Industry consolidation where there are a few big players involved allows more aggressive downward price pressures, and resulting cost-cutting measures in production including labor. Minimizing labor costs dramatically encourages more exploitative labor practices.

Child slaves work long hours, have no rights and are frequently subjected to brutal treatment and sub-human living conditions. Bonded labor - or debt bondage - is a form of forced labor in which children enter into servitude as a result of some initial financial transaction. This most frequently occurs when, having no other security to offer, parents pledge their own labor or that of their child in return for a money advance or credit. Landless and near-landless families, as well as migrant laborers, are the main victims of bonded labor. With few resources to meet daily needs, and no alternative sources of credit available, parents are often forced to pledge their children’s labor as payment or collateral on a debt. While parents may assume their children will be able to repay the debt out of future earnings, a combination of low wages and high interest rates often make repayment impossible. The child becomes bonded indefinitely.

Estate and Migrant Workers
Migrant workers in coffee plantations tend to be local workers from within the same country, versus in cocoa in Africa where they come from other countries to work, and become enslaved. Child workers in coffee tend to work mainly during the harvest season as temporary estate labor where they are not accounted for or recognized as employees under local labor laws. Dennis Smith, president of Guatemala’s Commission for the Verification of Corporate Codes of Conduct (COVERCO) says that child labor must be analyzed in two different categories. “For children of legal working age (14-18 years according to Guatemalan labor law), the issue is to check to ensure that they are working in accordance with the law. For children ages 7-13, their part in the labor market needs to be looked at in two ways: whether they are working on the family farm as part of a family unit, or whether they are part of the migrant labor pool. We think that it is more common for children to be involved in migrant labor, where the child has very few options, does not enjoy protection or does not keep their own pay. Their pay is given to the family and the child’s production goes to the accumulated value of the family unit. The issue is whether they have the option to work or not, and if they have access to school - and this needs to further documented.”

On estates, seasonal workers are generally paid by “piece-rate” - quantity of a given product produced - in the case of coffee, the number of baskets or kilos of cherries picked. For an average adult working a 10-hour day, this pay frequently does not meet the minimum wage of the local country. Even with both parents working to support a family, the minimum wage in developing nations is typically less than what is needed to provide a decent standard of living; therefore children are often employed to help bolster the family income. On plantations, young children often assist their mothers in filling the bags, while older children work independently. Even with such assistance, the earnings are barely enough to buy food.

In Kenya for example, “casual” coffee workers make approximately 1000 shillings a month (roughly U.S. $12), while the minimum wage required by law is 3 to 4 times that amount. Natacha Thys, Assistant General Council for the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) confirms that these workers “fall outside of labor protections, as temporary workers there are no labor laws and no unions to protect their rights.” Recent privatization of the education system in Kenya exacerbates the problem, she states “There used to be free public education in Kenya - now parents have to pay school fees in order for their children to attend school, and since most coffee families cannot afford the fees, the children stay home. And, if the children are at home the parents feel they may as well bring them along to the fields to work.”

In addition to compensation issues, the living conditions on plantations often include substandard hygienic conditions, unsafe drinking water, unclean sanitary facilities, and medical facilities that, if they exist at all, are often inadequate to treat the illnesses and injuries suffered by children. “Migrant laborers are easier to exploit. Even here in the U.S. we have children working to harvest crops,” says Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF). “There is a control and power issue with children, they don’t form unions, they don’t strike and you can beat them.”


Continued on next page...

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