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Why farmworkers? Why Brazil?

For the second year in a row, SCAA Executive Director Ric Rhinehart included specific reference to farmworkers in his opening comments to the SCAA Symposium.

And for the second year in a row, farmworker issues were discussed during a panel at The SCAA Event.

The time has come for proactive engagement on farmworker issues in the coffee industry.  We think the effort should start in Brazil.

Why farmworkers?  Why Brazil?

Farmworkers because they are more numerous and more vulnerable than the smallholder farmers who have been the focus of most sustainability initiatives in coffee, yet remain largely invisible. It is time for engagement to raise our collective farmworker IQ and build the broad-based awareness that is a necessary precondition for action.

And Brazil because it is the most important coffee country in the world and it has done more than any other coffee-growing country to protect its farmworkers; its farmworker protections are more aggressive than even those of the UN’s International Labor Organization; and it has developed innovative mechanisms in the public and private sectors alike to identify, punish and ultimately eliminate the worst labor abuses.  As we suggested here last week, if specialty coffee wants to scale and sustain its innovations, it needs to tie its efforts to progressive policies in growing countries.  And no coffee-growing country is more progressive on this issue than Brazil.  Any effort to improve the conditions of farmworkers in the coffee sector starts there.


Calle Brasil



Agriculture has a farmworker problem.  Coffee is an agricultural product.  Therefore, coffee has a farmworker problem.  To believe otherwise would be wishful thinking.

Still in denial?  Consider these three pieces of evidence:

  • The U.S. Department of Labor List of Goods Produced by Child Labor and Forced Labor.
    The International Labor Affairs Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labor publishes this document in compliance with the terms of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005.  The 2014 list includes the coffee sectors of 14 different countries.  Some of these are not specialty countries, to be sure—Cote D’Ivoire, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, for example—but most are, including some pretty important ones: Colombia, Guatemala and Kenya, for example.  Agriculture is the sector that relies most on child labor and coffee is the crop with the fourth-highest number of countries on the list, better than only cotton, sugar cane and tobacco—industries not as well-regarded as specialty coffee for their sustainability practices.
  • Guatemala reports.
    The coffee sector whose labor situation is best documented is arguably Guatemala’s.  Over the past 15 years, a number of studies have been published on farmworkers in Guatemala’s coffee sector.  Some of this research has been commissioned or conducted by industry.  Other reports have been published by the country’s coffee institute Anacafé.  And others still were independent investigations.  The best of the lot—and by a long shot—is Verité’s “Research on Indicators of Forced Labor in the Guatemala Coffee Sector.”  It finds evidence that workers in Guatemala’s coffee sector are regularly working without full consent, under menace of threats, working excessive hours, not being paid what they are owed, living in miserable conditions and subject to discrimination.  It also found evidence of child labor.  It suggests that women, indigenous people, temporary farmworkers and workers recruited by labor brokers are at heightened risk of labor exploitation.
  • Product of Mexico.
    Late last year, the Los Angeles Times published an exceptional investigative series titled Product of Mexico that was widely read among people concerned about the social conditions under which our food is produced.  The series documents conditions for farmworkers on produce farms in Mexico growing chiles, eggplants and tomatoes for U.S. supermarkets.  The conditions it describes are disturbing.  What do they have to do with coffee?  They are virtually identical to conditions we have documented in original research we commissioned into farmworker realities in coffee supply chains.  Replace every occurrence of “tomatoes,” “eggplants” and “chiles” from the Los Angeles Times series with the word “coffee” and the veracity if the reporting will not be affected.

Are labor rights violations in coffee as common as they are in fresh produce?  Not likely.

Is the existence of these conditions in coffee supply chains a stain on specialty’s integrity?  No, way.  The test for specialty will be how it responds to a growing body of evidence to suggest that we have some work to do in this area.



The 2014 edition of Let’s Talk Coffee opened with a panel discussion on the state of the coffee industry. That conversation explored the implications of public policy for the coffee trade, with Ric Rhinehart suggesting that the composition of a country’s coffee sector—its degree of social inclusion—is in large measure a function of its policies.

During the Q+A that followed, the debate over policy continued when a Brazilian grower asked whether Brazil’s policies—particularly its strong environmental and labor protections—make the country’s coffee growers less competitive vis-à-vis growers from other countries with weaker regulations.

Carlos Brando, whose sterling coffee pedigree (International Coffee Organization, World Bank, Sustainable Trade Initiative, Coffee Quality Institute and UTZ Certified, among others) makes him a kind of unofficial ambassador of Brazilian coffee, was on the panel with Ric.  He didn’t miss a beat in responding to the question: “No, they don’t make you less competitive, they make you more sustainable.”

His suggestion was that Brazil’s growers are generating value they are not capturing through environmental and social management practices that may be better than those of growers from other countries; that the trick is not to roll back the protections, but to figure out how to leverage them more effectively in the marketplace to the advantage of the growers who comply with them.

Ric added, to finish the 1-2 punch that represented arguabl the best moment of Let’s Talk Coffee: “It’s not that Brazil does too much. It’s that everyone else does too little.”

Brazil sets the standard for farmworker protections. Its laws provide aggressive protection for farmworkers. Mobile inspection groups drive 20,000 km a month to remote parts of Brazil to enforce those laws.  Employers who are found to be in violation of Brazil’s farmworker protections are identified publicly and punished. And leaders in Brazil’s private sector participate in an innovative trade association dedicated exclusively to eradicating the worst labor abuses from their supply chains.  It is a logical space for industry engagement to begin in Brazil.



Specialty coffee companies, in collaboration with nonprofits and trading partners in Brazil and coordination with Brazilian authorities, can help the most important coffee country in the world eliminate the worst forms of labor abuse from its coffee supply chains.

It is an audacious goal.  Success would send a powerful message to the governments of coffee countries around the world that buying specialty coffee is not like buying tomatoes.  That as far as the specialty coffee community is concerned, regulations that protect farmworkers don’t make growers less competitive, it makes them more sustainable.  Better trading partners.  And in a marketplace trending toward transparency, traceability and ethical sourcing practices, it ultimately makes them more competitive.

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