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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.


  • Miguel says:

    Great recap, Michael. I especially enjoyed Marcos Camilo’s participation at the panel. He did not only speak from himself or from workers in Brazil, but he really tried to include the perspective of the workers in Nicaragua who were present at SCAA, and the workers from Colombia who he had met before as part of the work with the coffee farm workers association.

    I have been encouraged by the many people who are beginning to engage on this issue following the different activities we had with the workers at SCAA. Especially this panel. I hope more people in the industry will begin engaging. This is not an initiative of a specific certification. I think we all want more coffee people from different parts/sides engaging and working with farm workers to create alternatives to the existing situation.

  • Scott Brant says:


    Thank you for organizing and moderating the Farm Worker panel at the SCAA. Eric, Marcos, Miguel and Pasquale all brought a much needed discussion about working conditions on coffee farms. As a roaster for the last 32 years I have always felt a real and vital connection to the farmer who grows the coffee that has made my life satisfying and enjoyable. We all have been aware on a subsurface level that somebody has to actually help that farmer because the work is immense. As tough as life can be for individual small holders, the folks who do the manual labor have been under the radar of our engaging industry.

    Let us hope that your work bringing this to the forum at the SCAA will be the start of much fruitful work. It was also clear that while some of us may have not been paying attention to role farm workers play in the supply chain, many of you are actively engaged and I hope will continue to act as a bridge bringing farm workers into the full discussion of how all participants can find a dignified life in coffee.

    A question I have that has not been mentioned is how much coffee picked does that $3.50 per day represent. How many kilos of cherry are picked to earn that wage? How long is that day picking for $3.50. How can we make some of the realities of picking coffee resonate with roasters and their customers. I thought this would be a good place to ask that question.

    Again, thank you.

    Scott Brant for the Coffeelands Foundation

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thank you for your thoughtful post and your work to create the Coffeelands Foundation. I look forward to learning more about it and do hope that it will be a forum in which farmworker issues might be addressed.

      It was absolutely my pleasure and honor to moderate the discussion at last week’s SCAA Expo. As I mentioned during the panel, I have had the privilege to participate in conversations at the SCAA over the past five years on acute threats to the sustainability of the specialty coffee chain: first seasonal hunger in the coffeelands, then coffee leaf rust and now farmworkers. These issues have a few things in common. None of them has an easy solution. And each of them requires sustained collaboration across sectors for lasting solutions. We desperately need permanent spaces for this kind of cross-sector engagement. Perhaps your Coffelands Foundation will be one of them.

      Regarding your question, I would like to hear a response from someone who is more expert than I am on farmworker issues. Meantime, I can tell you that my understanding is that a worker can generally harvest one-two large bags of cherry per day–100 to 125 pounds. Depending on the quality of the harvest, each bag may produce 20-25 pounds of export-ready greeen coffee. Another 20 percent of that weight is lost to roasting, meaning those 100-125 pounds of cherry may yield 16-20 pounds of roasted coffee. At $3.50 per day, that works out to $0.18-0.22 per pound in labor costs for the picker who manages a single bag of cherry per day, or half that for a picker who is twice as efficient and picks two bags: $0.09-0.11/pound.


  • Wbeimar Lasso Bolaños says:


    Habemos personas que no pudimos estar en tu conversatorio, pero sabemos de tu trabajo y el de Miguel y Pascale.

    Desde mi punto de vista creo que espacios como este abren la posibilidad a que la información llegue más fácil a muchos productores, ya que considero que el conocimiento de todos los segmentos que componen la cadena del café es la única herramienta que puede ayudar a que los productores de café mejores sus condiciones de vida.

    En Colombia en regiones como Nariño el salario para un día de trabajo estaría alrededor de los 6,15 USD, en el caso del Huila y Tolima esta alrededor de 10,25 USD, y para el caso del Cauca estaría en 9,23 USD (Para calcular esto se consultó directamente con los productores de café en cada una de las diferentes regiones y se calculó con base a 1 USD = 1950 Pesos Colombianos)

    Estos valores son los pagados en temporadas fuera de la cosecha, ya que en cosecha por pagar por Kg de cereza recolectado los valores variarían considerablemente.

    En el caso de los productores que conozco, en mucho de los casos no conocen realmente el funcionamiento de la certificación, y en muchos casos venden sus cafés bajo certificaciones que desconocen que ellos tienen o para que sirven, lo que nos lleva a una desinformación mucho más grande de los productores, y complica mucho más el estado de los trabajadores que participan en la producción ya que en muchos casos estas son personas que están migrando de acuerdo a la estacionalidad de las cosechas de una región a otra y para nada conocen de certificaciones o derechos adquiridos.

    El tema es complicado y el tema de agremiaciones causa en muchos productores “Desconfianza” pero es un temor que hay que enfrentar y superar, las certificaciones deben cumplir su real función aunque creo que hacerlo costaría mucho más porque una verdadera verificación sería bastante costosa, y eso al final se trasladaría a los costos de producción y por lo tanto nuevamente al productor, así que creo que las alianzas más susceptibles y más beneficiosas deberían ser las de los productores con los tostadores generando una real transparencia en sus relaciones comerciales.

    Hace unos meses el precio del café en Colombia llego a estar en los 380,000 pesos colombianos o 194,8 USD, en esta ocasión un productor me preguntaba que si cuando eso pasaba, al GRINGO cuando le vendían el café el precio también le bajaba, a lo que le respondí que NO, que la libra de café tostado seguiría costando los mismo allá, “él se tomaba la cabeza” me decía no entiendo si acá en Colombia el precio baja porque al que se toma el café allá no le baja el precio. Sinceramente tampoco entiendo pero así es el mercado en este momento, Pero aproveche y le pregunte USTED estaría dispuesto a vender su café pactando con su COMPRADOR un precio realmente JUSTO que le permita a el mantener sus GANANCIAS y a usted VIVIR DIGNAMENTE, el sin vacilar me dice CLARO QUE SI. Con esto puedo invertir y pagar mejor a los cosecheros.

    Entonces creo que el tema hay que trabajarlo mucho pero somos muchos los que como ustedes creemos que esto debe y puede cambiar para bien de todos y de esta gran industria.

    Mil gracias

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Muchas gracias por tu generoso comentario. Antes de contestarlo, quisiera traducirlo para los lectores que no dominan el español.


      – – – – –


      Some of us couldn’t be at the panel discussion, but we are aware of your work and the work of Miguel and Pascale.

      From my perspective I believe that spaces like this created the possibility for information to reach producers more easily, as I believe the only way coffee growers can improve their quality of life is sharing information among all links in the coffee chain.

      In Colombia in regions like Nariño, the daily wage for farmworkers is around $6.15, around $10.25 in Huila and Tolima, and in the case of Cauca it would be $9.23. (We got these daily rates by consulting directly with coffee growers in each of the regions mentioned here and caculated them based on an exchange rate of $1950 Colombian Pesos to $1 U.S. Dollar).

      These are the wages paid for labor done outside harvest, as during the harvest workers are paid on the basis of the kg of coffee cherry they pick and payment rates can vary considerably.

      Among coffee growers I know, many don’t really know the function of certifications. In many cases they sell certified coffees without understanding what certifications they have and what their certifications are for. There is a real lack of information among growers, which makes communicating the functions and requirements of certifications to farmworkers even more complicated, especially since many farmworkers are seasonal laborers who migrate from one region to another to work on the coffee harvest without knowing anything about certifications or the rights they may have.

      This is a complicated issue and the idea of organizing farmwokers generates real concern among many growers, but it is a fear we have to confront and overcome. This is what certifications should do, and even though it will be less expensive than an audit, it will cost more and in the end increase the grower’s cost of production. I think these issues need to be addressed in the context of transparent trading relationships between growers and roasters.

      A few months ago when the price of coffee in Colombia fell as low as $380,000 Colombian Pesos or $194.80 U.S. Dollars a grower asked me whether the North Americans who buy coffee at low wholesale prices also sell it at lower prices to their customers. When I responded “no” and explained that the price of a pound of coffee would remain unchanged, he told me he didn’t understand how coffee prices could drop in Colombia but not in the United States. Honestly, I don’t understand it either but that’s what’s happening in the market right now. But when I asked him if he would be willing to sell his coffee to a buyer at a truly fair price that would allow him to live with dignity and permit the buyer to maintain his margins, he told me that of course he would. In that situation, he told me he could invest in his farm and pay his pickers better.

      So I think we have a lot of work to do on this issue, but like you, we believe that this can and should change for the benefit of all and of this great industry.

      Thank you

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