One of the most important parts of building a sustainable coffee economy is ensuring the farmers responsible for growing and harvesting coffee plants have proper working conditions. Unfortunately, coffee farmers have a history of being taken advantage of. Even as sustainability efforts and the presence of third-wave coffee have increased, farmers have often been ignored.
Most of the world’s coffee is grown in countries with struggling economies, large wealth gaps and often, corrupt governments. This has made it all too easy for farmers and field workers to be taken advantage of without anyone noticing.
Coffee is often farmed by children. Many adults working these fields are under inescapable cycles of debt bondage. These workers are trafficked into fields and paid little if anything for their efforts. Conditions are harsh and unsafe. Workers are exposed to harmful pesticides and forced to drink alongside animals.
How Does This Happen?
Due to a lack of sourcing and transparency, many companies don’t know where their coffee comes from or who farmed it. Nestle was found using beans from Brazilian plantations that utilized slave labor. Even in Hawaii, one of the few US areas where coffee is grown, the US Department of Labor found that workers were usually exploited, undocumented immigrants being paid under minimum wage.
Those who own and work their own farmland have long faced paper-thin margins as coffee traders refuse to pay anything but bottom-dollar prices. Much of this stems from big companies trying to keep the cost of coffee from ever going up. The rate of inflation has long outpaced the rise of coffee prices for more than 50 years.
When forced with selling coffee for next-to-nothing or not selling it at all, farmers have to take what they can get. Oftentimes, they even have to sell at a loss.
What Can Be Done?
Today, there is a much greater awareness of the issues facing coffee farmers. The industry continues to take steps toward better pay and safer working conditions, though there is still much progress to be made.
Fair Trade initiatives help to provide proper prices for coffee farmers. However, due to the debt and poor conditions that have developed in coffee communities over decades, this isn’t enough to get them out from under the burden. Ultimately, a Fair Trade label doesn’t necessarily mean the farmers have proper working or living conditions.
Other organizations are working to empower, support and connect coffee farmers with resources they otherwise wouldn’t have. We’ve discussed the founding of Long Miles Coffee Project. This program was started in Burundi Africa, the second poorest country in the world. Long Miles Coffee Project has provided local farmers with washing stations while connecting them with ethical roasters around the world.
While there is a lot of responsibility that falls on the businesses within the industry, consumers play a vital role as well. When buying coffee, look for roasts that are single origin. If you’re buying coffee that’s distributed by an ethical roaster, it should be traceable back to the farm where it was grown.
Roasters like Madcap and organizations like Long Miles Coffee Project strive to provide coffee farmers with fair prices while ensuring they have safe working conditions. At 7 Corners Coffee, we strive to only use beans with traceable roots from ethical roasters. Not only does this provide a better life for coffee farmers but it results in a better cup of coffee.
As far as we see it, it’s a win-win for everyone. Visit our coffee shop in Minneapolis and help us build a better future for farmers around the world.