Today, millions of children throughout the world went to work instead of school or play. Their large numbers in every region of the world make child labor the most widespread abuse of children. The coffee industry is no exception. As coffee harvest moves into full swing in this year of historically low prices, even more families are finding it necessary to put their children to work to supplement the diminished family income.
In the past decade, international attention on the issue of child labor has increased dramatically. International trade and businesses have come under increased pressure from social activists, labor unions and others to help find new solutions to end exploitative child labor and help get children the education and training they need to become productive adults. Multi-national corporations in the spotlight include respected companies, such as Nike and GAP, as well as many other lesser-known businesses. Coffee industry giant Starbucks has also been a key target of labor advocacy groups.
After recent Knight Ridder news exposés on child slavery in cocoa and coffee in the Ivory Coast, the coffee industry reacted quickly and firmly with statements to condemn the situation there, and to establish public positions and policies on the broader issue of child labor. While child slavery and forced child labor are not prevalent in the coffee industry, the issue of children working to produce coffee is troublesome to many consumers who pay $5 - $14 on average for a pound of their favorite beans.
The coffee industry has been quick to act publicly to support international and government initiatives to combat the worst forms of child labor, though significant quantifiable progress for agricultural workers has been slow. The task is indeed daunting given the vast scope of the problem and many obstacles. Some special programs within the coffee industry, however, have begun to make an impact: development projects, Fair Trade and other direct trade relationships, independent monitoring and verification of labor issues, and company codes of conduct are slowly taking shape and gaining industry and consumer acceptance.
Price Crisis Exacerbates Poverty and Child Labor
“Poverty emerges as the compelling reason why children work,” states the International Labor Organization (ILO). “Children commonly contribute around 20-25% of family income. Moreover, their income keeps numerous families above the bread line.” According to UNICEF, “A review of nine Latin American countries has shown that without the income of working children aged 13-17, the incidence of poverty would rise by between 10-20%.”
Even in a normal “C” price year, poverty is endemic throughout coffee producing countries, forcing many families to put their children to work to make ends meet. This year, the situation is dramatically worse, driving farmers and farm workers into a desperate economic situation that requires them to take drastic measures to ensure the survival of their family. Farming families that in the past have been able to scrape by are losing their land, and farm workers are losing their jobs or are unable to find work. The price crisis affects more than just children’s need to work; it also impacts their ability to attend school and their nutrition. Today, it is more apparent than ever that in coffee, children work so that they can eat.
In extreme cases this year, children of coffee workers and farmers are being forced into harsher, more exploitive forms of child labor. Displaced coffee workers in Nicaragua, according to a recent news story in La Prensa, have congregated near the Costa Rican border, and reports of child prostitution have sprung up for the first time there, as families have been driven to desperate actions just to survive.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) executive director Ted Lingle points out the concept of “diminishing opportunity” with falling prices. “The underlying problem has been low world coffee prices, which for the past fifty years have not kept pace with U.S. inflation.” Lingle states, “Through their purchases consumers have consistently rewarded those firms selling coffee for the lowest prices. This means in order to maintain or increase sales, many coffee roasters have continued to seek out low cost coffees. In a global economy the net result is that farmers in Guatemala must compete with farmers in Vietnam for market share, and consequently the value of farm labor in Guatemala is discounted against lower labor costs in Vietnam. In every producing country, coffee farm workers remain at the mercy of the international market. While parents of coffee farming families would like to provide their children with better economic, education, health, and nutrition opportunities, they simply do not have the incomes to pay for it.”
The fact that poverty is widespread throughout coffee producing regions, even in a high “C” price market, points to other causes of poverty not related to price. While steps are being taken to alleviate some of the most severe effects of the price crisis and oversupply issues by industry associations, governments and international policy institutions, important progress has yet to be made in terms of the root causes of poverty in producing countries: economic relationships that keep people poor including lack of access to markets and credit, trade policy that favors big business interests over those of workers and families, and ineffective economic development programs in producing communities.
International Agencies Take the Lead
As S.L. Brachman noted in a recent issue of Business Economics magazine, the child labor situation has only recently gotten past the barrier of acknowledging the problem to taking steps to address it. “At the beginning of the 1980s, the governments of many developing nations denied that their economies contained child labor, and businesses followed suit. By the 1990s, the expanded definition of child labor was becoming more accepted, and governments began admitting that child labor existed in their economies. By the end of the century, the dominant question at the ILO was no longer how to get governments to admit that child labor existed, but how to implement programs to help children. While the ILO has taken almost two decades to conclude how to handle the problem of child labor, firms face a more demanding time-frame and are more vulnerable to suffering short-term consequences from falsely or mistakenly denying that child labor exists in their operations or those of their suppliers.”1
One of the first concrete steps taken by the ILO was the creation of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) in 1998 for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor. Since then over 175 countries have ratified ILO Convention 182, which applies to all children under 18, concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor. Under this Convention, the term “worst forms of child labor” includes slavery and bonded labor, child prostitution or pornography, using a child for illicit activities such as drug trafficking, and work that harms the health, safety or morals of children. Convention 182 requires ratifying nations to remove children from abusive child labor and provide them with rehabilitation, social reintegration, access to free basic education and vocational training; and to consult with employer and worker organizations to create appropriate mechanisms to monitor implementation of the Convention.
As indicated by this Convention and agreed upon by child advocates; simply removing children from work is not the whole solution - there must be alternatives for them and their families to replace lost income, as well as provide adequate schooling or care for children. As first steps to reduce and eliminate child labor and provide alternatives for child workers, some governments are introducing legislation to make primary education compulsory, while others are raising the number of years children are required to attend school. Numerous non-government organizations (NGOs) are developing and implementing programs to assist child workers and their families, including establishing small, non-formal education programs for children.
In a recent move specifically targeted to eliminate child labor in the coffee industry in six countries, the U.S. Labor Department announced a $6 million grant for IPEC programs. IPEC is working with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, to remove children from jobs harmful to their development, provide them schooling and health services, and prevent the employment of other children in the workplaces that the projects target. This development of and approval for this program was supported by the North American coffee industry, largely through the efforts of the National Coffee Association (NCA) with backing of the International Coffee Organization (ICO).
In addition to the impact they are expected to have, these programs will also be important learning opportunities and models on which to base future programs. But while these initiatives are promising, they are as yet untested. Real impacts will be difficult to measure particularly in terms of short-term results. This year specifically, in light of the coffee price crisis, concrete benefits that might have been noticed are simply not being felt. Instead, because many families’ incomes have been more than halved in this low market, these program initiatives are mainly helping to keep families from slipping more deeply into poverty.