The Blog

view all

407. “A dignified life”

2014-05-01 Comments Off on 407. “A dignified life”

Today is International Workers Day, also known as Labor Day throughout the coffeelands of Latin America.  Seems like an appropriate day for me to share some reflections on the farmworker conversation I had the privilege to moderate during last week’s SCAA Expo.

The post is unusually long because the conversation was uncommonly rich.

Of all the memorable contributions, one in particular stands out in my mind this May Day.  When I asked a coffee farmworker leader from Brazil what he hopes to achieve from by organizing and empowering his fellow farmworkers, his response struck me for its modesty: “Food every day.  A house with electricity…A dignified life.”


I opened the panel by reading this excerpt from a well-timed article that appeared a day earlier on the front page of The New York Times and illuminates the realities of agricultural labor:

Angelina Velasquez trudged to a parking lot at 5 each morning so a crew leader’s bus could drop her at the tomato fields by 6. She often waited there, unpaid — while the dew dried — until 10 a.m., when the workers were told to clock in and start picking.

…Crew leaders hectored and screamed at the workers, pushing them to fill their 32-pound buckets ever faster in this area known as the nation’s tomato capital. For decades, the fields here have had a reputation for horrid conditions. Many migrant workers picked without rest breaks, even in 95-degree heat. Some women complained that crew leaders groped them or demanded sex in exchange for steady jobs.

The dateline was Immokalee, Florida, the nation’s tomato capital.  But the conditions described here are commonplace in agricultural supply chains the world over.  Despite its well-earned reputation for leadership on sustainability issues in the food and beverage sector, it is wishful thinking to believe that somehow the coffee inudstry is immune to the ills that ail the broader agricultural economy.  Coffee has a farmworker problem.  The first step to solving it?  Acknowledging it exists.


Erik Nicholson
Vice President

Erik has been organizing farmworkers for 25 years.  He has spent the last two years taking that work to the coffeelands in Latin America as a member of the Fair Trade USA Board of Directors involved with certification pilots on coffee estates.

The problem:

  • “The conditions I have seen are appalling.”
  • “The wages that people earn?  They are not even subsistence.  People are going hungry right now.”
  • “$3.50 a day.  Are you kidding me?  That’s just wrong.”
  • “In an industry that produces so much wealth, we should be appalled.  Where’s the moral outrage?”
  • “We are not looking for charity.  People are saying: ‘Pay us a dignified wage.  Give us a fair return on our product.’”
  • “There is unprecedented consumer interest and concern about the integrity of our supply chain…People are asking questions I have never heard before about where exactly their food is coming from and how exactly we know what we know.  And that is a tremendous source of hope and opportunity.  But it can also be a threat if we don’t get our collective houses in order.”

The solution:

  • “Each of us in our respective organizations needs to break out of the paradigms in which we find ourselves.”
  • “It is scary. We are taking leaps of faith into unknown territory.  But the opportunities are huge.”
  • “Why aren’t we looking for tools to actively engage up and down the supply chain and pursue opportunities for collaborative engagement?”
  • In reference to the owners of the La Revancha estate in Nicaragua, who invested tens of thousands of dollars to improve conditions for workers and meet the standards for Fair Trade Certification: “Buy their coffee…If they don’t get a return in the market for that, what is the message we are sending?”
  • “We as the United Farm Workers are proudly in partnership with Fair Trade USA creating an organization of coffee workers.”


Marcos Antonio Camilo

Marcos Antonio started working in the coffee fields when he was 13 years old.  Today, he represents 1500 coffee farmworkers as part of a Fair Trade USA certification pilot that is working to organize and empower farmworkers.

  •  I have been working in coffee for 25 years.  In that time, in my family, we haven’t made much progress.
  • We sell Ipanema coffee to Starbucks.  It was my dream to go to Starbucks and drink Ipanema coffee.  Yesterday I had the pleasure to visit a Starbucks for the first time, but it didn’t exactly make me happy.  It made a real impression on me because the price of the coffee we bought was equal to what we earn in a day.
  • We don’t usually have direct participation in the coffee trade.
  • Now we are beginning to meet people who share our values…We are not alone anymore.
  • Our future is now.  When I get home I will share this experience with my fellow workers and we will surely work to make our coffee better.
  • In response to my question about what he hopes to achieve through his efforts to organize farmworkers: “I dream of selling my coffee so I can have food every day.  A house with electricity.  Like that.  A dignified life.”


Pascale Schuit
Producer Relations Director

Pascale and her Union Hand-Roasted colleagues were struck by the number of children they saw in the fields during a sourcing visit to Central America a few years ago–so struck that they decided Pascale should live in the communities for several months and conduct research.  Union Hand-Roasted Coffee released this summary of the research findings in connection with Pascale’s participation in the panel.

  • “We cannot close our eyes and look the other way.”
  • “The numbers are shocking.  There are 168 million children around the world involved in child labor and 60 percent of them are working in agriculture…It is happening in coffee.”
  • “We came to understand that it is a very complex issue.  It’s not an easy issue to deal with.”
  • “The first rule of development is ‘Do No Harm.’  Sometimes you can do harm if you ban children from the coffee fields…because they are providing income to their families.”


Miguel Zamora
Director of Coffee Innovation

Miguel has been working in agriculture for 20 years and coffee for roughly half that time.  Since the advent of Fair Trade for All, he has led Fair Trade USA’s estate certification pilots (involving six farms across four countries and more than 3,000 workers) and worked tirelessly to bring the issue of farmworker organization and empowerment into the sustainability conversation in specialty coffee.

When I asked Miguel what he had learned from his work on the pilots, he was ready with these clear answers:

  • “I see the farmworker issue in coffee as a public relations disaster waiting to happen.”
  • “This is not going to be solved only with certifications.  I always think about certifications as tools.  You need tools to build a house.  You need a hammer to build a house.  A hammer is great, but you cannot build a house only with a hammer.”
  • “Industry needs to be part of this solution…Support your partners and your suppliers so they can make changes.”
  • “Farmworkers need to have a seat at the table when we work on these solutions.  We can’t create sustainability for workers.  We have to create sustainability with workers.”



I finished the conversation where I started it, picking up where I had left off in the The New York Times article:

But those abusive practices have all but disappeared, said Ms. Velasquez, an immigrant from Mexico. She and many labor experts credit a tenacious group of tomato workers, who in recent years forged partnerships with giant restaurant companies like McDonald’s and Yum Brands (owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC) to improve conditions in the fields.

By enlisting the might of major restaurant chains and retailers — including Walmart, which signed on this year — the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has pressured growers that produce 90 percent of Florida’s tomatoes to increase wages for their 30,000 workers and follow strict standards that mandate rest breaks and forbid sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

What do tomatoes have that coffee doesn’t?

Organized and “tenacious” farmworkers, for one. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) began organizing in 1993.  Since then it has engaged in marches, strikes, boycotts, investigations, prosecutions, and lots of negotiations.  The Fair Trade USA estate pilots are beginning the process, first on specific estates then looking toward sector-wide organization, but building a labor movement takes time.

Tomatoes also have companies that have educated themselves on the issue and committed to act. The Times article goes on to describe many years of complicated corporate engagement with farmworkers, marked by uneven progress and a mixture of collaboration and confrontation.  Taco Bell, for example, was the target of a CIW boycott for four years before granting some concessions in 2005.  By contrast, this was the first year since I started in coffee in 2004 that farmworkers have been on the agenda at SCAA.

But specialty coffee has a lot that tomatoes don’t, including a track record of innovation for sustainability, fearless leaders who don’t shy away from difficult issues with no easy solutions, and a model of “fully realized trading relationships” based on transparency and mutual benefit–a model that must expand to make room for farmworkers if we are to seize opportunities to stabilize our supply chains, improve product quality, empower workers and continue to lay claim to the mantle of leadership on issues of sustainability.

– – – – –

Special thanks to Rachel Northrop, author of When Coffee Speaks and regular contributor to Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, for sharing her bootleg audio recording of the session with me in support of this post.