I have been writing for this blog on issues related to farm labor consistently since the beginning of last year, and talking with colleagues in the industry about farmworkers in the coffee sector for even longer. During that time, two common responses have been denial (it’s not really a big deal) and resignation (it is such a big deal it is hard to know where to begin). There are resources out there that address both these impulses, providing compelling evidence for those in denial and practical guidance for those paralyzed by the magnitude of the issue. Readers of this blog who are taxpaying U.S. citizens have helped pay for two of them: the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor and “Reducing Child Labor and Forced Labor: A Toolkit for Responsible Businesses,” two worthy publications issued by the International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) of the U.S. Department of Labor.
Publication of the List is mandated by an act of Congress called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and subsequent Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Acts in 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2013.
The Toolkit was developed by ILAB as part of its broader effort to reduce the incidence of child labor and forced labor in global supply chains in consultation with leaders in government, the private sector, the financial community, labor unions and non-profits.
Today, notes from a recent conversation with Rachel Rigby, an ILAB veteran who has worked on both.
NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED
Michael Sheridan: In the most recent version of the List published in 2014, more countries were cited in agriculture than any other sector of the global economy, and coffee was the fourth-most-frequently cited product, with instances of child labor in 14 cases, including one country where there was evidence of both child labor and forced labor. How would you characterize coffee in comparison to other global supply chains in terms of the prevalence, seriousness and urgency of child labor?
Rachel Rigby: Part of the reason that coffee is so well-represented on this list is that it is such an important crop in Latin America, and many Latin American countries are more advanced in terms of being open and transparent about data collection and dissemination. And countries that are transparent and open about data collection and dissemination are often the most cited, but it is important to recognize that this doesn’t mean they have more child labor than other countries. Sometimes countries can feel that they are being punished for being more open about the problem. For just that reason, we need to be supportive of those countries that are willing to be leaders in confronting these issues.
The fact that coffee is cited more frequently than other products doesn’t necessarily mean that coffee has more child labor. It speaks more to the availability of data in coffee-growing countries.
It is also really important for us to emphasize that the List has a lot of limitations. Data on child labor and forced labor worldwide are very incomplete. We are aware of those limitations and we do occasionally fund additional research to try to fill some of the gaps.
THE SCARLET LETTER
MS: I know that Colombia, which has appeared on every edition of the List since its inception, has been vocal in its dissent, filing this public protest. Is that response—public or private protest—common? And what can countries like Colombia do about getting off the List?
RR: We have heard from foreign governments and industry groups in specific countries every year since we started publishing the list in 2009. Coffee is no exception.
Usually these groups contact us to ask what they have to do to get off the List. We try to keep our answer very simple because it really is a very simple process. We are answering a yes or no question: Is there child labor or forced labor in the production of a good in more than an isolated incident or not? The question that should be asked then is, “How do we address child labor or forced labor in the production of this good?” It is not, “How do we get off the List?”
The mandate we received from the law behind this List is clear: we include in the List the countries and goods where there is evidence that labor practices are “in violation of international standards.” It is very clear what international standards we should use in our evaluations because there are conventions from the International Labor Organization that set a kind of baseline standard.
We have five criteria that we weigh evidence against in making our decisions and we often spend months analyzing evidence against those criteria, which are also at the center of all the analysis we do. We also have a 50-page manual that explains how to operationalize those criteria.
So it really is a robust process, and we won’t remove a good from a particular country from our list if we have evidence that reflects that, in more than an isolated incident, child labor or forced labor is occurring.
MS: One of the complaints I have heard and read from leaders in coffee-growing countries is that the process lacks, shall we say, a proper dose of anthropology. That it doesn’t into account cultural factors related to life in the coffeelands, like the time-honored tradition of kids harvesting coffee during school vacations. How do you respond to that critique?
RR: The ILO standards we rely on are robust. They are international and are supposed to be respected and applicable in all kinds of countries. Most of the time, a country’s own legal framework prohibits child labor and forced labor and the country has ratified the international conventions.
MS: What role has the U.S. private sector played in helping to redress instances of child labor and/or forced labor in their supply chains overseas?
RR: We developed the Toolkit for Responsible Business for precisely this purpose. We don’t have a lot of info on uptake, but we do know it has been used effectively by companies that on their own have decided that this is an important issue to them and have put in place the processes and recommendations included in the Toolkit. We maintain a dialogue with those companies.
Following the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh in 2013, we played a major role engaging with the garment sector along with other U.S. government partners, European governments and NGOs.
We have worked closely with the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition, which has worked hard to address the issue of forced labor in its supply chains in East Asia and incorporated strong protections in its code of conduct, and with Coca-Cola, who has been working on this issue in its sugar supply chains.
We have had a lot of engagement with the chocolate industry, which has been more deeply engaged on the issue than most other industries, largely as a result of the Harkin-Engel protocol and a later Joint Declaration, which really focused the sector’s attention on child labor. We have been partners in with industry and the producer governments of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in a framework for implementing the protocol and Declaration’s guidance for addressing child labor in cocoa producing areas in these two countries and are active in the Child Labor Cocoa Coordinating Group.
MS: But it sounds like you haven’t had a ton of engagement in recent years with the coffee sector. Would the U.S. Department of Labor welcome formal engagement with companies in the U.S. coffee sector to address instances of child labor in their supply chains in countries on the List of Goods?
RR: Coffee is an important product that is used by so many people on a daily basis, and it is an industry that is well-represented on our list. We have done some work in the coffee sector, but would be really interested in increased engagement with the coffee sector. Our door is open to actors all along the coffee supply chain.
Michael: very interesting questions and answers regarding child labor. I remember when working at Anacafé and arranging coffee tours to farms, some firs-visit-buyer were shocked to see families with children in the harvest working all together. As it is a reality that has lived with us in origin countries forever, it seemed difficult to try to see through what is normal and usual, even though we knew it was not the ideal. Most farms are now supporting nurseries and schools near them so that children can go to while parents work. But, still I question: is it a responsibility of the farms? Should the government as signee of child labor agreements do major efforts to support school for all? Obviously, more educated population may not be interested in harvesting because they would rather do something else. This is a forced choice that answers to a very complex context within each country. Other questions will be: Will buyers be willing to pay the price for those educated workers? Will workers still want to pick coffee as a formal job? My conclusion is that as members of the industry, both growers and buyers need to address this topics as responsible companies that look for better options in quality, environment and socially that translates into fare prices and profit for all in the coffee chain, including workers.
Thanks for seeing this issue with the nuance it deserves. I was involved in a brief exchange on Twitter a few weeks ago that considered the issue you raise: the respective roles of STATES and ESTATES on this issue. Both clearly play a part. My sense is that States must deliver education, and e-states should be creating positive incentives for kids to stay out of the fields and engaged in school. I also know that there IS a cultural impulse in places like Guatemala for families to want to stick together, even if it means being in the fields. The challenge in that context—and the reason it may ultimately be untenable—is where to draw the line between cultural practices focused on family unity and the slippery slope toward child labor that may begin with a few latas here, a tarea there…
I was surprised to see you say that “most farms are now supporting nurseries and schools” so that kids can study while their parents work. Is that really such a widespread practice? I know that Anacafé had partnered with the Ministry of Education on a small number of pilots—and everything I have heard is that the program was really impressive—but that this worthy practice remained fairly limited in scale. Please correct me if I am wrong.
As to who should bear responsibility for these kinds of programs, I think the whole global labor regime is in flux and that is still being defined in different contexts. I know that in the United States there are plenty of employers who don’t offer free daycare to their employees, so it sure sounds like a lot to expect of a farm hiring unskilled labor on a seasonal basis in a low-margin business. But then again, the competitive firms in the global North are beginning to understand that business success is built on the quality of the workforce. And labor shortages at origin is making some farm owners rethink their relationship to labor.
Finally, you address the painful nerve just under the surface of this conversation that has to do with worker freedoms. You ask whether better-educated and more-empowered workers will be interested in doing coffee farm work. The uncomfortable implication of that question is that they very likely will not, and that the future viability of coffee farming as we know it may depend on labor that is something less than free. I don’t mean that labor in the coffee sector is bonded or enslaved. Not that kind of unfreedom (although we know there are some cases of that). I am referring to freedom in the sense of the capabilities approach pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum that considers not what one has a right to do but what one is capable of doing—what one may be free to do and achieve in the world. If coffee depends on unfreedom in this context—on the idea that farmworkers will only pick coffee if they cannot reasonably aspire to something else—then we are far indeed from our ideal of sustainable coffee.
You are right, I should correct myself saying “more and more farmers” or “most of the farmers I know and work with”, care to support schools or nurseries near their farms or in their farms to help them stay away from getting involved in what their parents work. Children learn by watching their parents doing (Like father/mother like son/daughter. As I know many buyers willing to support them in achieving this goals. Funcafe as well (Anacafé’s foundation) works also in many health and education projects that address this issues.
This morning I was just meeting with a woman grower and we were talking about education of farmworkers and she mentioned a good example about it. She said “when I look at the payment receipts of farmworkers and see all these finger prints as signatures I realize that the illiteracy reality in our country is far away from what we would like to really have”.
Information and education is key to empower human beens to achieving better life conditions.
I do believe that agricultural activities in origin countries need to address those realities, but some times it seems that they are so complex that its hard to identify where to begin. As you say, there is so much need that even institutional efforts seem very little. Meanwhile, many farmworkers also decide to migrate to where they think better opportunities are offered.
It seems we can also talk for ever about this issue, but in our daily routine and accelerated life style, it is good to stop and think about this social issues. If we can come up with a national strategy that could address a coffee career that can start with teaching farmworkers how to read and write and that could end in a graduated coffee professional that could be hired in a coffee shop or in an organization to develop a specific job, then we could be talking about a sustainability addressed issue. It is ironical that Guatemala to speak of my place, depends so much on agriculture and there is very little done to support those type of citizens that make it possible. We lack of a vision of the citizens we would like to have.