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402. Farmworkers

A month from today, at the 2014 SCAA Expo, CRS will help start something that is long overdue in specialty coffee: a conversation about farmworkers.

For me personally, the conversation will bring some things full circle.

Ten years ago this month, I started working on coffee for CRS, taking the reins of the CRS Fair Trade Coffee Project.  I started by asking lots of questions and doing lots of listening.

Ten years ago next month, I took my listening tour to Atlanta for my first SCAA event, where I asked everyone who I could buttonhole what they saw as the biggest challenges to sustainability (and how they thought CRS could help address them).

For the Fair Trade movement CRS was joining, it was a tumultuous time.  The memories of the coffee price crisis of 2001 were still fresh, and rumors of Fair Trade Certification for coffee estates persisted despite a 2003 pledge that it wouldn’t happen.  Many of the discussions were barbed.  There was one thing, however, it seemed everyone could agree on: that farmworkers were the most vulnerable actors in specialty coffee supply chains.  Especially migrant workers.

In my experience, that baseline assessment–that farmworkers are the most vulnerable actors in specialty coffee chains–hasn’t changed much over the past 10 years.  During that time, there have been important innovations in sustainable sourcing, but most, it seems, related to smallholders, with few new industry-wide initiatives to improve conditions for farmworkers.

For CRS, farmworkers remain a real blind spot.  (In fact, it is only today, after more than four years of blogging on sustainability in coffee, that I have added an entry for “farmworkers” to the list of content categories.)  As an agency, our coffee “IQ” remains much higher for smallholder production systems than estates dependent on large numbers of farmworkers.  My strong sense is that holds true for most people in specialty coffee.

One month from today, I will have the privilege of hosting a conversation designed to increase awareness of challenges and opportunities for farmworkers–always the first step on the long path to action.  Driving the discussion will be:

  • Erik Nicholson–United Farm Workers
    Erik has been organizing farmworkers for more than a quarter-century.  He will bring the considerable knowledge he has built through that experience to bear on the conversation and introduce the results of a new survey UFW has done on legal protections for farmworkers in coffee-producing countries.  Erik also serves on the Board of Directors at Fair Trade USA
  • Miguel Zamora–Fair Trade USA
    Ten years ago, Fair Trade USA (then TransFair USA) was compelled during the SCAA event to dismiss rumors that Fair Trade Certification of estates was imminent.  At this year’s event, Fair Trade USA will be two years into estate certification pilots designed to do what no certifier has done before: organize and empower farmworkers.  Miguel Zamora is an intellectual and material author of those pilots, and presents preliminary results.
  • Marco Antonio Camilo–Ipanema Agricola
    Marco Antonio is a farmworker on a Brazilian coffee estate particpating in one of the FTUSA-supported pilot projects.  He will speak from his own lived experience on the challenges and opportunities facing farmworkers in specialty coffee.
  • Pascale Schuit–Union Hand-Roasted Coffee
    Pascale directs producer relations for London-based Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.  Several years ago, she was troubled by the number of children she saw in the coffee fields during a sourcing visit to Central America.  When she told the owners of the roastery, they sent her back to research the issue more thoroughly.  Pascale presents the results of the Union Hand-Roasted study.

Join the conversation on Saturday, 26 April at 9 am in room 201 at the Seattle Convention Center.  Simultaneous translation bewteen English and Spanish will be available.



  • Matt Warning says:

    It is great that you are opening up this discussion. Thanks for your leadership.
    Has anyone done a review of the empirical literature on coffee farmworkers? I know I haven’t. It seems that some basic facts and figures would be useful background for the discussion (but I’m an economist, and of course I would want numbers).
    Thanks again for taking this on.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      I haven’t heard from you in a while. Good to see you back on the discussion board.

      Thanks for the encouraging words and the sensible suggestion. If this kind of lit review exists, I haven’t seen it. Are you volunteering for the job?


  • randy wirth says:

    Farmers, children, and women are all extremely vulnerable in rural agriculture wherever you go in the world. Hence, Jimmy Carter’s newest book that focuses on women , in particular. While small individual efforts are fine as far as they go, a comprehensive effort would be welcome. I keep hearing about the shortcomings of Fair Trade, yet ,I have seen nothing scalable that addresses these problems in any serious way.

    While my own grandfather here in the United States had to quit school to support his abandoned mother and sisters for 25 cents/day working 7 days/week, it would be nice to know that nearly 100 years later, we can do better. I cannot believe that consumers would knowingly support products that exploit the most vulnerable among us.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for this comment and your contributions to the other conversations here in recent weeks.

      In just two short paragraphs you raise a number of important points:

      You remind us of the advances made over the past two generations in farmworker rights and protections–gains that were hard-earned and worthy of celebration.

      And you also remind us that vulnerability remains an inescapable part of agriculture, for smallholder farmers and farmworkers, for men, women and children alike. As we engage collectively in this conversation in the coming weeks and months, it will be important to hold this perspective. To remember that despite the enormous achievements of the specialty industry in the area of sustainability, coffee is a widely traded agricultural product and not immune to the ills of global agriculture. True, coffee is overwhelmingly a smallholder crop, and smallholder production systems make significant use of family labor–an important factor that helps mitigate the incidence of the worst types of violations of human rights in the coffee chain. But we need look no further than Hawaii and the recent case of slave labor during the coffee harvest there to understand that we need to engage with the issue of farmworker rights in coffee, and not just in coffee-growing countries. Despite the hard-earned victories of farmworkers in the United States, there are still human beings living and working in miserable conditions in our own country to produce our food.

      Finally, you rise here again to the defense of Fair Trade. Other readers have challenged some of your comments on this blog in recent weeks on the benefits of Fair Trade. In this particular case, I think you may be right to hold your ground. Fair Trade USA took a lot of heat when it broke with Fairtrade International and launched Fair Trade for All–some of it on this blog and plenty of it deserved. But what seems to me to be beyond dispute in my estimation is that FTUSA is going where no certifier has gone before–onto coffee estates to organize and empower farmworkers–and raising the visibility of farmworkers on whom we depend for our coffee but who are mostly invisible. It is not clear whether FT4All will be regarded, over the long term, as a “successful” innovation in the Fair Trade system. I wonder, however, whether the aspect of Fair Trade for All’s design that has been most controversial in its early years–certification of estate coffee–may be its most important legacy, as a milestone in the industry’s engagement with farmworkers.


  • Lauren says:

    Great post Michael, should be a good symposium.

    Matt, as far as I know and have seen there doesn’t seem to be a succinct literature review of farmworkers in coffee – this is desperately needed.

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