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Mythbusting farm labor in the coffeelands

Over the past two years, we have been working with colleagues in the coffee and nonprofit sectors to better understand farmworker issues in the coffeelands.  In the process, we have boosted our farmworker IQ and busted some commonly held myths about farm labor in the coffee sector, like this one:

MYTH: Farm labor is only an issue for big roasters sourcing big volumes of coffee from big farms.

REALITY: Big isn’t (necessarily) bad, and small isn’t (necessarily) beautiful.



In certain segments of the specialty market, the idea that labor is an issue only relevant for big roasters sourcing big volumes from big farms is a widely held belief.

I have heard the assertion that the Direct Trade sourcing model, which features frequent farm visits and high prices for coffee of exceptional quality, ensures Direct Trade roasters don’t have labor issues in their supply chains.

And there is resistance in some Fair Trade circles to engagement with farmworker problems because Fair Trade in coffee was originally meant to address a different source of injustice: the structural disadvantage of smallholder growers vis-a-vis estates that are larger, better capitalized, more efficient and (perhaps occasionally) widening their profit margins by exploiting labor.

I have worked closely with roasters in both categories over the past decade.  In fact, this week am traveling in Colombia with Direct Trade buyers and buyers who source Fair Trade coffee.  I can say from my own experience that Direct Trade and Fair Trade have contributed significantly to improvements in the quality of life in the coffeelands.  But that doesn’t absolve them from accountability on farm labor in their supply chains.



Direct Trade: What’s on Your Origin Agenda?

Just because a buyer from a Direct Trade roaster visits a farm and likes what s/he sees doesn’t mean there aren’t labor issues to address.  I have accompanied visits to smallholder farms by Direct Trade roasters and don’t ever recall working conditions coming up, even when those visits took place during harvest and there were workers in the fields picking coffee.  My sense is that farmworkers are rarely on the agenda when Direct Trade buyers visit the growers they source from.  Until questions about labor recruitment, working conditions and wages are as much a part of Direct Trade visits to source as questions about cup quality, post-harvest processing and production, source visits aren’t a reliable proxy for compliance with labor law. 


Fair Trade: Small Farms Hire Labor, Too

There is a deeply rooted narrative in the coffee sector about the smallholder farmer who depends exclusively on family labor.  It is seductive.  It is romantic.  It is wrong.

The Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction program at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies caused quite a stir last year when it published this report suggesting that workers in Fair Trade Certified supply chains (including workers on Fair Trade coffee farms in Ethiopia and Uganda) were no better off than workers on non-certified farms.  I suggested at the time the biggest contribution of the report was not the comparison of workers in certified and non-certified supply chains but its prominent assertion that Fair Trade’s family labor narrative is a myth in many parts of the coffeelands and the powerful evidence it marshals in support of that assertion.

But I’m not taking their word for it: my own experience with smallholder growers in Central and South America is consistent with the report’s finding about their reliance on hired labor during the harvest.

Fair Trade’s progress in leveling the playing field for smallholder coffee farmers is worthy of celebration, but it doesn’t mean that smallholder Fair Trade doesn’t have labor problems to contend with.



We love to root for the underdogs, and we love to hate the big dogs.  And big roasters do source big volumes from big farms that rely on big numbers of farmworkers.  Precisely because they do (because labor is more visible in these production systems than they are in smallholder systems) they have been compelled to address labor issues in their supply chains through codes of conduct and certifications in ways that smaller roasters sourcing more consistently from smallholders have not.  The big coffee companies may not have all the answers on farm labor, but learning from their engagement seems a natural starting point for those of us who still new to the issue.



What does it mean to bust this particular myth about farm labor in coffee?

Let me be clear: I don’t think Direct Trade and Fair Trade buyers are alone.  I don’t think any buyers are focused enough on farmworkers during their visits to source.  I am only singling out Direct Trade and Fair Trade here because of the suggestion that they may be immune to labor concerns by virtue of their sourcing models.

EVERYONE buying coffee has farmworkers in their supply chains.  Serious engagement with supply chain sustainability in the coffee sector will require roasters to reject decisively the trope that labor is only an issue for big roasters sourcing big volumes from big farms. 

Michael Sheridan


  • Chris London says:

    Here’s another factor to consider. Farmers in Caldas have told me that pickers are very picky, so to speak, about the fields they will work in. They want to maximize their return on labor, that is, pick the most they can in the shortest time possible. What that can mean in practice is that they only want to work farms that have technified fields in full production. In other words, it is more capital intensive farms that are most attractive to workers. Both small and large farms can be capital intensive. But capital intensive is NOT what specialty is after on the whole. The accusation against Bird Friendly, organic etc.., a least a few years ago, was that it was a model for “sustainable poverty.” I didn’t think that was a fair characterization, nonetheless when I heard farmers tell me the above about workers preferences it did give me pause.

    Another thing to consider. Some research on organic farming in the US that I’ve encountered found that sometimes the labor conditions were worse because production required more hands on, physically draining work.

    This doesn’t deter me from wanting to see coffee and ag generally go full on eco-groovy and socially responsible but, as you’ve pointed out, listening to labor does complicate things.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Always a pleasure to hear from you–your comments are always good for some insight, provocation, or both!

      In this case, alas, your last line is too true: LISTENING TO LABOR DOES COMPLICATE THINGS.

      As for your suggestion that farmworkers seek capital-intensive (larger) farms where they can harvest larger volumes of coffee than on less capitalized (smaller) ones, hmmm. I don’t question the veracity of the story, of course, and do agree that the quality-obsessed segment of the specialty market may be ambivalent at best about capital-intensive farms whose primary focus is maximizing yields. But I would suggest that specialty supply chains have gotten better at compensating farmworkers for lower volumes with incentives for quality: more and more, growers (even small, undercapitalized ones) who are selling into specialty coffee supply chains tell me they pay their workers by the day and not by volume to align incentives for quality.


  • Chris London says:

    I don’t disagree that specialty supply chains have gotten better. But there are 500,000 to 550,000 coffee farms in Colombia. How many are truly in those chains? 2000? 5000? Even if it’s 50,000 it would still only be 10% of Colombia’s farms. I grew up in specialty and am a believer, but it is so far from building alternative structures for the global industry as a whole, or even a national industry such as Colombia’s that we’d be fools to think that it will somehow be the salvation of coffee.

    But back to wages. I asked people about paying by the day. The reason was that one of the complaints farmers have of pickers is that they only pick what they can easily get, speed is primary. This means that they aren’t thorough, leaving a lot left to pick but that pickers won’t want to work. And worse they don’t recover what falls to the ground, creating broca habitat. So it seemed to me that they need to come up with a different wage model. I suggested two. One, pay day rates. The reason pickers wouldn’t be interested, farmers said (and by farmers I mean people with 2-5 hectares), is that the reference wage is the official jornal but pickers can make a lot more with pay by weight. Farmers of course wouldn’t have to just pay jornal of course. Indeed they claimed that their price takers: pickers could more or less set the price they wanted for cost per kilo, farmers complaining that after you pay them and everything else there is barely any margin left for the farm. So why not offer a larger day rate? It was a non-starter of a conversation.

    The second model I suggested was contracting a team, the contract stipulating complete harvest, including gather beans from the ground. Offer a good price that is still within costs but for a complete job. That suggestion went nowhere as well.

    The folks I was talking with have been jornaleros so there was no built in bias against labor. Nevertheless they felt the current labor market hurts coffee farmers.

    (There’s a whole other conversation to be had for places like Caldas regarding the role of Nespresso and now Starbucks. Colombia was always at the high end of commercial coffee; what works now in Caldas is working at the low end (or commercial end) of specialty like Nespresso. I was prepared to see Nespresso as a problem, and there are some problematic issues, but right now farmers tell me the Nespresso premium is one of the few things that keep them hopeful about coffee.)

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Funny you should bring up the idea of picking teams. Again, it is not Caldas, but in Nariño that is precisely what we have seen as an autonomous response of smallholder growers (less than 1 ha in coffee on average) to acute labor scarcity.

      Last year we worked with Counter Culture on a plan to do just what you propose–form, train and incentivize groups of pickers focused on quality. Problem was, by the time we got to the field with our bright idea in advance of the harvest, folks told us they had already recruited a team to ensure they had enough labor to keep their coffee from rotting on the branch. So, while it may not work everywhere, it is a solution that is working in some places.

      In the end, yes, only a fraction of the country’s 560,000 coffee-growing families are participating in the kind of specialty I am talking about. And yet, so many innovations spawned in that segment of the market have been adapted and scaled. Got to start somewhere.

      But, as you suggest, let’s get real. Let’s talk about “alternative structures for the global industry as a whole.” I think the whole thing starts with a commitment on the part of the companies that drive the global industry to deliberately complicate their lives by listening to labor in the way you clearly have. Can we agree on that?


  • Connor Garbe says:

    Hi Michael,

    I agree with you that Direct Trade is not an improvement on the supply chain unless roasters are asking the right questions and making the right observations when at origin. In my experience, though, asking a farmer about labor wages, working conditions, etc. is an intimidating thing to do, and usually ends a friendly relationship. I think farmers feel that their practices may be unfairly judged by an uneducated market (in some cases I agree), and would rather not disclose this information in fear of being lambasted by said market.

    My question to you is: How do suggest these questions be asked? Have you had any positive experiences having this conversation with farmers?



    • Connor:

      Sorry to hear that your experience probing around labor issues has been a conversation-ender. That has not been my experience with folks who are involved in Direct Trade supply chains, who presumably have a better grasp than most coffee growers of what the market is looking for, not just in terms of intrinsic cup quality but also in terms of traceability, transparency and some assurance regarding the environmental and social conditions of production. I have had positive conversations with growers about farm labor—conversations that have been positively extraordinary in their candor and transparency. My sense is that when labor issues—just like issues of environmental management or quality—are embedded in conversations about how to grow a trading relationship and how to generate and capture more value, they become a natural part of an expanded view of what it means to do business in a dynamic and competitive marketplace. In the end, roasters rule the roost—they make the rules by which the game is played and have extraordinary power to bring farm labor issues into the conversation in a more prominent way. If they make improvements in supply chain transparency a precondition for trading relationships, or even privilege the issue in their conversations at origin, I believe we will see real movement on this issue.


  • Connor Garbe says:

    Thank you for such an eloquent and optimistic response to something that has been a little disheartening to me. As ethical and sustainable trade become more valuable in our marketplace, I suppose it is unavoidable that these conversations will become more naturalized.



    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Not sure if it is eloquent, but it certainly is optimistic! I hope it doesn’t veer into naïveté.

      I do believe labor’s time is coming in the coffee trade—sooner rather than later—and by extension in the kinds of origin conversations we are talking about here. But that sure doesn’t mean it is going to be easy for everyone. There will certainly be uncomfortable moments, likely growers who recoil from this line of questioning, and probably relationships that fray over mutual perceptions of mistrust. But if enough actors in the market rewrite the rules of their supply chains to include this line of inquiry, growers will have little choice but to go along.



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