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Can we afford to protect children in the coffee fields?

The text of the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill is more than 600 pages long.  Buried somewhere near the middle, under “Subtitle C–Miscellaneous,” is section 3205, which calls for the creation of a Consultative Group to Eliminate the Use of Child Labor and Forced Labor in Imported Agricultural Products.  Its mandate?  Recommend actions companies can take to help, well, you know…eliminate the use of child labor and forced labor in imported agricultural products.

What’s it got to do with coffee?  The Consultative Group’s report makes prominent mention of coffee, which appears frequently on the U.S. Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.  (The most recent List reports the existence of child labor in the coffeelands in 14 countries, including some that are important specialty coffee origins.)

The Consultative Group’s recommendations were adopted without modification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as voluntary guidelines for U.S. companies.

But not everyone was convinced they were a good thing.

The National Coffee Association, among others, regarded them as too expensive.  “Onerous and especially costly to implement” was the precise language it used.  In a public comment also signed by other trade groups, the NCA further suggested that “certification that farms are not using child labor will be nearly impossible in the case of products or commodities produced on a large number of small, remote farms.”  Products like coffee, for example.

Now, more than four years after they were published, the U.S. Department of Labor wants to test the USDA guidelines.  It is offering a grant worth up to $4.87 million to support a pilot program for companies that implement all of them in their agricultural supply chains.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the Department of Labor will award funds to support work in the coffee sector.  If it does, we may learn that the NCA was right.  Perhaps we can’t protect children and victims of forced labor in the coffeelands.  At least, not in all the ways the USDA recommends.  But with many of millions of lives in the balance, it sure seems like it is worth a try.

The Consultative Group Report is thoughtful and well worth a read.

It includes discussion of the context for child labor: 215 million children working worldwide in 2008, most of them in agriculture and more than half of them in jobs characterized by their governments as hazardous.

It draws the important distinction between farm work for young people (the kind of character-building work kids have done on farms across America’s heartland for generations) and the worst forms of child labor as defined by the ILO: work that is exploitative, exhausting, hazardous or all three.

It doesn’t shy away from the root causes of forced labor: poverty, discrimination, racism, entrenched class divisions.

It is humble enough to acknowledge that even the most well-intentioned programs can do harm to the people it is trying to help.

It is sober in its assessment of how much the private sector (the primary audience for the USDA guidelines) can do on its own on issues of child labor and forced labor: it concludes that “reduction” of child labor and forced labor is a more appropriate aspiration for the guidelines than “elimination” while urging sustained cross-sector engagement with governments and civil society organizations that share the burden on these complex issues.

And finally, it advances the recommendations that were adopted by the USDA as guidelines for companies importing agricultural products into the United States.  These are some of the highlights:

  • Standards should “meet or exceed” International Labor Organization standards or national laws, whichever is more stringent, and should be “made available to the public.”
  • Companies should “communicate child labor and forced labor standards” to “suppliers…workers (including unions where they exist) and producers…traders, middlemen, processors, exporters.”
  • Companies should “map [their] supply chains” to identify “areas of child/forced labor risk” for child labor or forced labor and “focus [their] program efforts” in those areas.
  • Companies should “develop monitoring tools based on [their] standards” and monitor both on a “continuous basis” and an ad hoc basis “in response to any whistleblower allegations.”
  • “When violations [are] found, [companies] should remediate.”
  • Remediation policies should include “remediation for individual victims as well as remediation of broader patterns of non-compliance.”
  • Companies could consider “provision of technical assistance” to suppliers to improve compliance as well as “positive incentives” including “a preferred suppliers list, a price premium, purchase guarantees, access to financing, inclusion in national or country-of-origin trade promotion/registries,” etc.
  • Companies should “make information available to the public on its monitoring program and process to remediate/improve performance.”

In the end, the NCA may be right.  Implementing all those guidelines does sound awfully expensive.  Maybe coffee companies can’t afford them.

And it is not at all clear that they will be more effective in addressing child or forced labor than current efforts.

But they could be.  And even if they aren’t, the Consultative Group and the USDA have performed an invaluable service for the coffee sector in developing the guidelines and the U.S. Department of Labor in testing them: as the specialty coffee community deepens its engagement with issues of farm labor generally (and the more insidious issues of child labor, forced labor, trafficking and modern-day slavery more specifically), they have articulated (and will soon field-test) a high-bar standard of labor practices that will inform future efforts to protect the most vulnerable people in our supply chains.

Michael Sheridan


  • Michael, Thank you for bringing light to yet another human issue – in this case simply pointing out our current context, helping us reconsider how we meet and respect one another while trading and learning.

    • Michael Sheridan says:

      Thank you, Tony. Great to hear from you.

      I like your characterization of my post, and the premise that coffee creates opportunities for meeting and mutual respect across great geographic, financial and cultural distances.

      The post was inspired (in part) by the impression that there may not be enough meeting (or mutual respecting) going on between people who travel to origin to buy coffee and the farmworkers who harvest it, and (in part) by the hope of contributing in some small way to more intentional encounters between coffee buyers and coffee farmworkers, and more opportunity for mutual respect and benefit.


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