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Fair Trade Article

Tea and Coffee Trade Journal

Jan/Feb 2002   volume 176, number 1

The Plight of Coffee's Children

In May 2001 Knight Ridder Newspapers published a scathing article about the rampant use of child slave labor on cocoa plantations in the Cote dıAvoire [sic]. Dailies across the nation carried the story, prompting U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat from Iowa) to call for urgent action on the part of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA) to remedy the situation. After a subsequent Knight Ridder article was published on June 24, 2001, entitled ³Some Coffee Beans May Also Be Tainted,² the coffee industry leapt to evaluate its own vulnerability to this controversial issue and potential public relations debacle. Specialty coffee supporters argue that higher prices paid for gourmet beans, and the fact that little if any specialty coffee is sourced from the Ivory Coast, assures that child slave labor is not an issue for specialty consumers. This notion, accurate or not, is unlikely to assuage consumer concerns should the media spotlight turn its focus to coffee. For consumers, the slightest insinuation that any child labor, slave or not, taints specialty coffee beans can make even the finest gourmet coffee leave a bitter taste.

Most child welfare advocates agree that the proper place for a child is in the schoolroom, not the workplace. Even so, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 250 million working children, 120 million of whom work full time. Especially in agricultural communities, children often must work in order to help their families survive. In agriculture, childrenıs work generally falls within three different contexts: as child slaves or bonded laborers, as migrant or estate workers usually as part of a family unit, or growing up on family farms. Many children work for commercial farms and plantations that produce commodities exclusively for export, making up an estimated 7-12% of the work force on these plantations. Among the products that children help to harvest are cocoa, coffee, coconuts, cotton, fruit and vegetables, jasmine, palm oil, rubber, sisal, sugar cane, tea, tobacco, and vanilla.

Child labor is a complex issue primarily rooted in poverty. A ³one size fits all² solution developed in a vacuum in order to avert a potential public relations scandal will not put an end to child labor. A strategy to address the welfare of children in the coffee industry must prioritize the elimination of the most egregious forms of child labor, and take into consideration the root causes and the various forms of child labor in coffee and address each one appropriately.


Children Toiling In The Fields

Traveling throughout Central America and other coffee producing countries around the world, one cannot help but notice the sheer number of young children and adolescents. Recent census statistics show that populations in Latin American countries, contrary to those in the U.S. and Europe, are increasingly younger, ranging from 38-52% of inhabitants under the age of 18. On coffee farms, large and small, the prevalence of children is significant - some playing, others caring for young siblings and still others working alongside their parents. When visiting the fields as a coffee buyer or visitor, one nearly always encounters children beneath the branches of the coffee trees picking the red beans, their nimble hands often outpacing those of their parents.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more children work in agriculture around the world than any other economic sector. Accurate statistics on the prevalence of child labor in coffee are scarce, though anecdotal evidence indicates that the occurrence is widespread in coffee producing countries around the world. While certain forms of ³light work² are acceptable for children, most working situations for children do not protect their rights, or provide them access to adequate education and opportunities for their future. Because childrenıs work is not legally sanctioned in most countries, their presence goes unreported. Largely invisible, child laborers fall through the cracks of existing government protections or monitoring. As an easily subjugated workforce, their voices are not often heard, leaving them subject to low pay (if any), and dangerous working conditions, which affect their health and safety.

Working children suffer consequences of their early employment well into life. According to UNICEF, working adolescents between 13 and 17 have one to two yearsı less education than those who do not work. Two yearsı less education implies about 20% less in monthly income during active life. The cost of education pays off later in life according to UNICEF - the rise in incomes of salaried urban adults with three more years of primary or secondary level education amounts to between six and eight times the cost of these additional years of education.

Children in agriculture face many safety and health risks. Coffee picking is exhausting work, and for a childıs developing physiology the impact can be damaging. Long hours, hot temperatures, overexposure to sun and snakebites are a constant threat to the well being of coffeeıs children. Regular exposure to dangerous chemical fertilizers and pesticides (protective gear is uncommon) that have been banned in the U.S. are still used frequently in coffee production and pose another threat to children. Children are often malnourished and get sick easily, particularly those in the migrant work force. With Central American countries facing famine this harvest season, the welfare of coffeeıs children has already diminished even more dramatically.

Various Forms of Childrenıs Agricultural Work

Each of the three primary categories of child labor has different level of acceptance among child advocates and distinct impacts on the childıs welfare:

Worst forms: Slavery and Bonded Labor

The most exploitative types of child labor - child slavery and bonded child labor - are also the most universally condemned. The exploitation of child labor can generate large profits for whole industries, as child workers provide employers with a low-cost and easily subjugated labor force. The issue in cocoa has revolved specifically around child slave labor.

In the Knight Ridder piece, ³Some Coffee Beans May Also Be Tainted,² journalist Sumana Chatterjee writes that ³Chocolate isnıt the only American staple tainted by slavery. In addition to being the king of cocoa, Cote dıAvoire is the worldıs fourth-largest Robusta coffee grower, after Vietnam, Indonesia and Uganda. The two crops often are grown together, so the taller cacao trees can shade the coffee bushes, and on some farms, young slaves harvest coffee beans as well as the cacao pods that yield cocoa beans.² In the U.S., about 5% of Robusta beans come from the Cote dıAvoire. ³As with cocoa, thereıs no way to tell whether a shipment of coffee beans contains beans picked by slaves or those picked by paid workers,² the article states.

Since specialty coffee for the most part doesnıt use Robusta, it is unlikely that the child slavery issue affects the specialty coffee industry as it does the cocoa industry, though the distinction is less clear with the commercial coffee brands which use quite a bit of Robusta coffee for their blends. Industry consolidation where there are a few big players involved allows more aggressive downward price pressures, and resulting cost-cutting measures in production including labor. Minimizing labor costs dramatically encourages more exploitative labor practices.

Child slaves work long hours, have no rights and are frequently subjected to brutal treatment and sub-human living conditions. Bonded labor - or debt bondage - is a form of forced labor in which children enter into servitude as a result of some initial financial transaction. This most frequently occurs when, having no other security to offer, parents pledge their own labor or that of their child in return for a money advance or credit. Landless and near-landless families, as well as migrant laborers, are the main victims of bonded labor. With few resources to meet daily needs, and no alternative sources of credit available, parents are often forced to pledge their childrenıs labor as payment or collateral on a debt. While parents may assume their children will be able to repay the debt out of future earnings, a combination of low wages and high interest rates often make repayment impossible. The child becomes bonded indefinitely.


Estate and Migrant Workers

Migrant workers in coffee plantations tend to be local workers from within the same country, versus in cocoa in Africa where they come from other countries to work, and become enslaved. Child workers in coffee tend to work mainly during the harvest season as temporary estate labor where they are not accounted for or recognized as employees under local labor laws. Dennis Smith, president of Guatemalaıs Commission for the Verification of Corporate Codes of Conduct (COVERCO) says that child labor must be analyzed in two different categories. ³For children of legal working age (14-18 years according to Guatemalan labor law), the issue is to check to ensure that they are working in accordance with the law. For children ages 7-13, their part in the labor market needs to be looked at in two ways: whether they are working on the family farm as part of a family unit, or whether they are part of the migrant labor pool. We think that it is more common for children to be involved in migrant labor, where the child has very few options, does not enjoy protection or does not keep their own pay. Their pay is given to the family and the childıs production goes to the accumulated value of the family unit. The issue is whether they have the option to work or not, and if they have access to school - and this needs to further documented.²

On estates, seasonal workers are generally paid by ³piece-rate² - quantity of a given product produced - in the case of coffee, the number of baskets or kilos of cherries picked. For an average adult working a 10-hour day, this pay frequently does not meet the minimum wage of the local country. Even with both parents working to support a family, the minimum wage in developing nations is typically less than what is needed to provide a decent standard of living; therefore children are often employed to help bolster the family income. On plantations, young children often assist their mothers in filling the bags, while older children work independently. Even with such assistance, the earnings are barely enough to buy food.

In Kenya for example, ³casual² coffee workers make approximately 1000 shillings a month (roughly U.S. $12), while the minimum wage required by law is 3 to 4 times that amount. Natacha Thys, Assistant General Council for the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) confirms that these workers ³fall outside of labor protections, as temporary workers there are no labor laws and no unions to protect their rights.² Recent privatization of the education system in Kenya exacerbates the problem, she states ³There used to be free public education in Kenya - now parents have to pay school fees in order for their children to attend school, and since most coffee families cannot afford the fees, the children stay home. And, if the children are at home the parents feel they may as well bring them along to the fields to work.²

In addition to compensation issues, the living conditions on plantations often include substandard hygienic conditions, unsafe drinking water, unclean sanitary facilities, and medical facilities that, if they exist at all, are often inadequate to treat the illnesses and injuries suffered by children. ³Migrant laborers are easier to exploit. Even here in the U.S. we have children working to harvest crops,² says Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF). ³There is a control and power issue with children, they donıt form unions, they donıt strike and you can beat them.²

Family Farms 

The primary purpose of family farms is to support the families that operate them. They typically produce a variety of subsistence crops, in addition to at least one ³cash² or export crop, such as coffee. The income the family receives from coffee is used to buy products that cannot be produced on the farm, and pay for other family expenses such as medicines and school fees when they can afford it. On family farms, children are often expected to help support the viability of the family unit. Children growing up on farms begin to work at an early age, and they often know no other way of life, particularly if they lack access to education. In many agrarian societies, children as young as five years old perform small tasks on the farm. Tasks performed by children include helping in the house, harvesting subsistence crops, caring for siblings, picking or sorting coffee cherries or other work relating to the coffee harvest. As part of a family unit, the children are not frequently exposed to dangerous conditions that jeopardize their health and safety.

Price, Poverty and Cheap Labor

The foremost contributing factor to all of these forms of child labor is poverty. The hard life of an agricultural worker - receiving little pay for backbreaking work - requires that all family members support the survival of the family unit. Parents sell their children into bonded labor because they are too poor and see little other alternative. Estate workers get paid too little, and family farmers get prices that are too low that allow them the liberty to not have their kids work. The resulting link between low price, poverty and child labor is inextricable. ³Even at a good price,² says Thys of the ILRF, ³the distribution of the price is the issue, higher prices do not necessarily translate into higher incomes for workers. The key is ensuring the fair distribution of the price.²

Coffee is a labor-intensive product to cultivate, harvest and process. Extra care to maintain a standard of quality on the farm and through the processing requires additional time and effort. Coffee experts in producing countries estimate that the amount of labor required to produce a pound of coffee is 2.2 hours. Even at commodity price levels of $1.00, pressure to keep labor costs low is intense. At current prices, which have fallen well below the cost of production, labor costs are being driven down even further.

COVERCO reports that for several years now estate holders have been massively laying off ³colonos,² the permanently employed labor on the estate, in favor of hiring cheaper temporary and migrant labors outside the protections of the Guatemalan law. The situation has been exacerbated by this yearıs price crisis, and there is evidence that this trend is picking up in other countries as well. In Brazil, both resident workers on plantations and small farmers expelled from their land joined the ranks of migrant and temporary workers that became known as boias-frias or volantes (in English, ³floaters²). Because the earnings of many families diminished considerably, they increasingly employed children to bolster family income. Today, child boias-frias and volantes comprise a large number of Brazilıs child workers.

Family farmers typically earn a fraction of the export price for their coffee, since they work through local middlemen or ³coyotes² that take a substantial percentage. The family income is subject to the swings of the commodity market, and children work because their parents are unable to earn enough to support the household. Children become productive parts of a family unit, who can produce income to help the family sustain itself and even to help pay for their own school and medical expenses.

Supporting Factors

In addition to poverty, several other factors exacerbate the problem of child labor: inadequate government policy and enforcement, lack of opportunities for education, and societal acceptance. Each of these factors play a critical role in determining whether children work and in what forms of labor they engage:

Inadequate Government Policy and Enforcement

In many countries, governmental policies simply ignore the plight of children. While laws may exist, the lack of surveillance, enforcement, and intervention on the part of governments allows child labor to flourish. Even when violators are caught and prosecuted, penalties are often too small to affect employersı practices. The lack of NGO and monitoring agencies and the scarcity of resources devoted to improving the situation further contributes to the persistence of child labor. This issue was validated by COVERCO in their 1999 study of the Guatemalan coffee industry. The report states, ³The coffee industry in the communities studied demonstrates a lack of commitment to the rule of law in Guatemala. Large majorities in all the communities studied report lack of payment of overtime and legally mandated employee benefits. Almost half report lack of compliance with the legally mandated minimum wage. Anecdotal evidence from our focus groups demonstrates similar problems with child labor, discrimination against women, legally-mandated health and safety programs, educational services and hygienic living conditions.²

Lack of Education

Sparse economic resources of developing countries are often spent in urban versus rural areas, further encouraging the neglect of education for families in the agriculture sector. In coffee communities, schools are remote and simply inaccessible to most. Children in coffee villages typically must walk for several miles to attend school past the age of 10. Even where school is more accessible, often families cannot afford the fees and supplies. In coffee, typically, the school vacation coincides with the coffee harvest, however, this is hard to control, and when harvest season and school do coincide, large numbers of families send their kids to the fields instead of to school. Children have little say in whether or not they work, and whether they have access to school or opportunities for an alternative vocational choice in their future. Many young boys and girls, once they start working, donıt return to school. On some estates, children of permanent workers may have access to some schooling; but as ILO data indicates, ³Primary education facilities are available on most plantations, but are generally found insufficient to enable all children to attend school regularly and complete their primary education.²

Societal Acceptance

In certain cultures, working children are part of an accepted societal norm; child labor is viewed as beneficial to the child, the family, and the society in general. Indonesiaıs ³Pancasila² ideology states that a childıs foremost duty is to help their parent. An ILO study of child labor in Indonesia notes that ³cultural values in Indonesia accept and even encourage child employment as an educational process² that brings understanding of work, personal responsibility, self-discipline, and job satisfaction. Similar attitudes are common in many communities throughout the world. Finally, society in general contributes to child labor through omission, indifference, a lack of awareness, or the acceptance of child labor as a natural and customary way of life. In the economies of countries where the multi-million dollar coffee export industry plays a key role, the lack of serious data and analysis on worker and child labor issues is a testament to this indifference.


The Child Labor Debate: Abolish or Regulate?

While most child rights advocates will agree that at the least the worst forms of child labor must be abolished immediately, they are divided as to the most appropriate approach to improve the lives of the worldıs working children. While some support the abolition of all forms of child labor, others argue that its abolition is unrealistic and contrary to the interests of the children themselves. Such advocates emphasize that the issue of child labor must be analyzed within the broader context of social, economic and educational progress in the developing world. 

With the recent increased public awareness of child labor, some coffee industry companies have sought a ³Certified - no child labor² guarantee like the chocolate industry is considering as a Band-Aid to their public relations quandary. Such quick fix solutions to the broader child labor issue tend to be shortsighted and result in misguided policies.

Collingsworth of the ILRF says, ³The ultimate buyer, they donıt want child labor. They are just woefully ignorant. Child labor exists and companies can only claim ignorance for so long before they get caught. It would be a lot more constructive to work in a proactive fashion versus a reactive fashion; setting up programs going in rather than dealing with the public relations crisis. It is much better to have a constructive partnership where industries work with local authorities and put kids in school.² Acting in a reactive manner, he continues, ³allows people to question - what is going on here? Is this a cover-up or are you really interested in impacting the situation?²

The child labor issue in agriculture is not likely to disappear any time soon, if ever. Children are going to work in coffee as long as poverty exists in their communities. The challenge for the coffee industry is not to treat child labor as a mere public relations issue, but rather as one component of a broader social and economic agenda to improve industry policy and practice. At the most basic level, better access to school, health care and decent housing is essential for children on both coffee estates and family farms - better wages and prices would help make this possible. The ultimate vision perhaps, is for children in coffee producing communities to live as healthily and carefree as the children of the U.S. specialty coffee community - such an industry transformation would make an unmistakably newsworthy piece for journalists to report around the world.

Numerous international organizations work on behalf of children around the world. In the coffee industry, several initiatives have begun to address child labor and its root causes. Programs such as codes of conduct for suppliers with appropriate enforcement, fair trade initiatives, and community development projects through organizations such as Coffee Kids are providing promising opportunities for children outside of coffee ³business as usual.²


Working to Help Coffeeıs Children

This article is the second of a two-part series on child labor in the coffee industry. The first article provided an overview of the background and root causes of child labor. This second article looks at steps being taken by international agencies, governments, and industry players to improve the welfare of coffeeıs children, and to ensure that coffeeıs beans are free of exploitative child labor.

Today, millions of children throughout the world went to work instead of school or play. Their large numbers in every region of the world make child labor the most widespread abuse of children. The coffee industry is no exception. As coffee harvest moves into full swing in this year of historically low prices, even more families are finding it necessary to put their children to work to supplement the diminished family income.

In the past decade, international attention on the issue of child labor has increased dramatically. International trade and businesses have come under increased pressure from social activists, labor unions and others to help find new solutions to end exploitative child labor and help get children the education and training they need to become productive adults. Multi-national corporations in the spotlight include respected companies, such as Nike and GAP, as well as many other lesser-known businesses. Coffee industry giant Starbucks has also been a key target of labor advocacy groups.

After recent Knight Ridder news exposés on child slavery in cocoa and coffee in the Ivory Coast, the coffee industry reacted quickly and firmly with statements to condemn the situation there, and to establish public positions and policies on the broader issue of child labor. While child slavery and forced child labor are not prevalent in the coffee industry, the issue of children working to produce coffee is troublesome to many consumers who pay $5 - $14 on average for a pound of their favorite beans.

The coffee industry has been quick to act publicly to support international and government initiatives to combat the worst forms of child labor, though significant quantifiable progress for agricultural workers has been slow. The task is indeed daunting given the vast scope of the problem and many obstacles. Some special programs within the coffee industry, however, have begun to make an impact: development projects, Fair Trade and other direct trade relationships, independent monitoring and verification of labor issues, and company codes of conduct are slowly taking shape and gaining industry and consumer acceptance.


Price Crisis Exacerbates Poverty and Child Labor

³Poverty emerges as the compelling reason why children work,² states the International Labor Organization (ILO). ³Children commonly contribute around 20-25% of family income. Moreover, their income keeps numerous families above the bread line.² According to UNICEF, ³A review of nine Latin American countries has shown that without the income of working children aged 13-17, the incidence of poverty would rise by between 10-20%.²

Even in a normal ³C² price year, poverty is endemic throughout coffee producing countries, forcing many families to put their children to work to make ends meet. This year, the situation is dramatically worse, driving farmers and farm workers into a desperate economic situation that requires them to take drastic measures to ensure the survival of their family. Farming families that in the past have been able to scrape by are losing their land, and farm workers are losing their jobs or are unable to find work. The price crisis affects more than just childrenıs need to work; it also impacts their ability to attend school and their nutrition. Today, it is more apparent than ever that in coffee, children work so that they can eat. 

In extreme cases this year, children of coffee workers and farmers are being forced into harsher, more exploitive forms of child labor. Displaced coffee workers in Nicaragua, according to a recent news story in La Prensa, have congregated near the Costa Rican border, and reports of child prostitution have sprung up for the first time there, as families have been driven to desperate actions just to survive. 

The Specialty Coffee Association of Americaıs (SCAA) executive director Ted Lingle points out the concept of ³diminishing opportunity² with falling prices. ³The underlying problem has been low world coffee prices, which for the past fifty years have not kept pace with U.S. inflation.² Lingle states, ³Through their purchases consumers have consistently rewarded those firms selling coffee for the lowest prices. This means in order to maintain or increase sales, many coffee roasters have continued to seek out low cost coffees. In a global economy the net result is that farmers in Guatemala must compete with farmers in Vietnam for market share, and consequently the value of farm labor in Guatemala is discounted against lower labor costs in Vietnam. In every producing country, coffee farm workers remain at the mercy of the international market. While parents of coffee farming families would like to provide their children with better economic, education, health, and nutrition opportunities, they simply do not have the incomes to pay for it.²

The fact that poverty is widespread throughout coffee producing regions, even in a high ³C² price market, points to other causes of poverty not related to price. While steps are being taken to alleviate some of the most severe effects of the price crisis and oversupply issues by industry associations, governments and international policy institutions, important progress has yet to be made in terms of the root causes of poverty in producing countries: economic relationships that keep people poor including lack of access to markets and credit, trade policy that favors big business interests over those of workers and families, and ineffective economic development programs in producing communities.


International Agencies Take the Lead

As S.L. Brachman noted in a recent issue of Business Economics magazine, the child labor situation has only recently gotten past the barrier of acknowledging the problem to taking steps to address it. ³At the beginning of the 1980s, the governments of many developing nations denied that their economies contained child labor, and businesses followed suit. By the 1990s, the expanded definition of child labor was becoming more accepted, and governments began admitting that child labor existed in their economies. By the end of the century, the dominant question at the ILO was no longer how to get governments to admit that child labor existed, but how to implement programs to help children. While the ILO has taken almost two decades to conclude how to handle the problem of child labor, firms face a more demanding time-frame and are more vulnerable to suffering short-term consequences from falsely or mistakenly denying that child labor exists in their operations or those of their suppliers.²1

One of the first concrete steps taken by the ILO was the creation of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) in 1998 for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor. Since then over 175 countries have ratified ILO Convention 182, which applies to all children under 18, concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor. Under this Convention, the term ³worst forms of child labor² includes slavery and bonded labor, child prostitution or pornography, using a child for illicit activities such as drug trafficking, and work that harms the health, safety or morals of children. Convention 182 requires ratifying nations to remove children from abusive child labor and provide them with rehabilitation, social reintegration, access to free basic education and vocational training; and to consult with employer and worker organizations to create appropriate mechanisms to monitor implementation of the Convention.

As indicated by this Convention and agreed upon by child advocates; simply removing children from work is not the whole solution - there must be alternatives for them and their families to replace lost income, as well as provide adequate schooling or care for children. As first steps to reduce and eliminate child labor and provide alternatives for child workers, some governments are introducing legislation to make primary education compulsory, while others are raising the number of years children are required to attend school. Numerous non-government organizations (NGOs) are developing and implementing programs to assist child workers and their families, including establishing small, non-formal education programs for children.

In a recent move specifically targeted to eliminate child labor in the coffee industry in six countries, the U.S. Labor Department announced a $6 million grant for IPEC programs. IPEC is working with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, to remove children from jobs harmful to their development, provide them schooling and health services, and prevent the employment of other children in the workplaces that the projects target. This development of and approval for this program was supported by the North American coffee industry, largely through the efforts of the National Coffee Association (NCA) with backing of the International Coffee Organization (ICO).

In addition to the impact they are expected to have, these programs will also be important learning opportunities and models on which to base future programs. But while these initiatives are promising, they are as yet untested. Real impacts will be difficult to measure particularly in terms of short-term results. This year specifically, in light of the coffee price crisis, concrete benefits that might have been noticed are simply not being felt. Instead, because many familiesı incomes have been more than halved in this low market, these program initiatives are mainly helping to keep families from slipping more deeply into poverty.


Industry Challenges to Improvements in Child Labor

When the Ivory Coast slavery scandal broke, the three major North American coffee associations issued public statements strongly condemning the situation, urging all producing nations to ratify the International Labor Organizationıs Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, and calling on signatories of the Convention to take necessary measures to ensure its effective implementation.

For a long time, the industry was able to essentially ignore issues outside of its direct control, such as child labor in coffee producing countries. In todayıs media climate, this is no longer the case. And, since development projects tend to have a long-term perspective and gradual impact, businesses have a proactive role to play alongside international agencies, governments and industry associations in order to encourage more rapid and effective progress and mitigate potential public relations risks.

Industry associations have a role to play, notes the SCAA statement, ³Ultimately, local enforcement is necessary to prohibit and stop illegal child labor. Although trade associations cannot literally act as Œlocal enforcementı in producing nations, trade associations can take the lead in directing attention to areas where these conditions exist and encouraging their members to find alternative sources of supply. Trade associations, by providing a common forum for discussion of the issues, can also help their members to achieve the delicate balance between ethical sourcing, foreign sovereignty, and corporate earnings that arise from purchasing tropical agricultural products from developing countries.²

While public positions against child labor are crucial, leaving the implementation and enforcement of such policies to corrupt governments of impoverished nations does not offer much confidence to businesses that are susceptible to public scrutiny and even negative consumer demands. Countries are under extreme economic pressures, and the global trading trend is to drive down prices. In their bid to compete for a low-priced sale, local producers often do whatever is necessary to bend the laws, or turn a blind eye to infractions with the assumption they wonıt get caught. This fact directly impacts companiesı and industry initiatives working to dispel consumer concerns that their coffee may be tainted with child labor.

A further challenge is that international standards outlined and promoted by the ILO and IPEC are non-binding. The laws of individual countries define children and child-appropriate work differently, using different ages for different types of work. Add to that uneven enforcement of these laws, and the reality of the situation and real progress becomes obscured to agencies, businesses and consumers alike. Media reports and growing consumer activism make it risky and inadvisable for companies to sit back and wait for progress of international agencies and programs to be reported.

In spring 2000, a television news report by San Francisco ABC7ıs Dan Noyes found that ³Labor rights groups (say) that American companies are not using the power they have to keep children from being exploited. According to Guatemalan law, itıs illegal for children under 14 to work - but we spoke with children as young as 6-years-old, working the plantations day in and day out to earn less than a dollar a day. Some live in open-air bunkhouses, hundreds crammed into small sleeping areas. They bathe, and wash dishes and clothing all in the same tub.²2

Many child advocates agree that there are rampant problems with enforcement of laws and policies. In their 1999 study of the Guatemalan coffee industry, the Commission for the Verification of Corporate Codes of Conduct (COVERCO) found that ³The coffee industry in the communities studied demonstrates a lack of commitment to the rule of law in Guatemala. Large majorities in all the communities studied report lack of payment of overtime and legally mandated employee benefits. Almost half report lack of compliance with the legally mandated minimum wage. Anecdotal evidence from our focus groups demonstrates similar problems with child labor, discrimination against women, legally-mandated health and safety programs, educational services and hygienic living conditions.²

Another complexity is to understand that not all child labor is bad. In coffee communities, children working alongside their families in the coffee fields is culturally appropriate - children learn as they work, participate in family activities, learn to be productive members of society, and help their families be more viable. The key is when children are working - are they also in school and are they together with their families? Many child advocates would agree that, in this situation, child labor is not necessarily harmful to them, though it is a delicate and difficult balance to strike.


Promising Models to Improve the Plight of Coffeeıs Children

The complexity and enormity of the endeavor to reduce child labor in coffee and offer concrete alternatives means that real progress will be a long time coming. While international organizations and trade associations deal with larger policy issues moving local governments and NGOs forward, some concrete solutions are being offered by non-profit organizations working with coffee companies, particularly within the specialty sector. New market alternatives such as Fair Trade, development projects through Coffee Kids or other non-profit development organizations, and codes of conduct implemented for coffee suppliers, are three concrete opportunities for making an impact immediately on farming communities and child workers.

Fair Trade and other Direct Trade initiatives: According to the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) in Bonn, Germany, the criteria required for fair trade certification were created taking into account relevant ILO conventions concerning child labor (29, 105 and 138). Under the criteria for coffee, there can be no forced labor, and, because fair trade works with family farms, the children are not working under harmful conditions. Furthermore, the minimum price criteria provide families with a dignified standard of living, eliminating the need for children to work for wages. Many cooperatives within the fair trade network use premiums from their fair trade coffee sales to provide scholarship programs to keep kids in school instead of in the fields. 

Direct trade relationships with estates as well, offer more opportunities for companies to verify whether child labor is employed or not. Independent verification is crucial though, since estate owners control what visitors and buyers witness and their interaction with workers during visits. In a direct trade relationship, companies can also exert more control as buyers over estate conduct and treatment of workers and children. 

Development Projects: Coffee Kidsı key objectives are to keep kids in school and to provide economic alternatives in the coffee communities in which they work. The Hijos del Campo scholarship program in Costa Rica is one key initiative that Coffee Kids donations help to fund. Through the COOCAFE coffee cooperative, funds are provided to send children to school as well as to improve school facilities and infrastructure, provide bus transportation and obtain trained teachers. In a growing number of communities, Coffee Kidsı micro-credit programs are targeted toward helping women develop small businesses to earn alternative sources of income to free them from their economic vulnerability to coffee commodity market swings. The results of these programs, this year in particular, are keeping families together so that men donıt have to go off to look for other work, keeping kids in school and providing them with a more nutritious diet.

Codes of Conduct and Sourcing Guidelines: A handful of companies have begun to implement their own codes of conduct and sourcing guidelines, some of which specifically bar the use of children in the making of company products. Frequently, though, consumers and labor advocacy groups remain skeptical of such initiatives. Many codes of conduct have been criticized for being difficult to monitor by third parties, and therefore, for amounting to little more than window-dressing. Few companies have voluntarily gone beyond such a code to ensure that children removed from the workplace had access to other opportunities, such as school, or vocational training. Enforceable, independently monitored guidelines ensure their effectiveness to both businesses and consumers.

Industry Collaboration: The SCAA points out that ³trade associations can take the lead in directing attention to areas where (Šharsh child laborŠ) conditions exist and encouraging their members to find alternative sources of supply. Trade associations, by providing a common forum for discussion of the issues, can also help their members to achieve the delicate balance between ethical sourcing, foreign sovereignty, and corporate earnings that arise from purchasing tropical agricultural products from developing countries.² Other areas for potential collaboration include lobbying and advocacy in international policy discussions, such as those that have taken place between the ILO, ICO, USDOL and the coffee industry.

Coordinated efforts on the part of major corporations, significant buyers and/or industry associations can send a strong signal to producing country governments and industry, and international agencies to encourage them to take action on critical issues. One historic moment that highlights such a successful industry collaboration came as the result of the Folgers Boycott in 1991. The boycott, led by the solidarity group, Neighbor to Neighbor, was established with the initial demand that Folgers stop buying El Salvador coffee to encourage quicker resolution to the decade old civil war and related human rights abuses. The demands of the consumer activists were finally met in the form of full page advertisements taken out in all of the major newspapers in El Salvador by the big three national roasters - Folgers, Maxwell House and Nestle - with a strong statement in support of the ongoing peace process in New York. The high profile alliance of the three companies brought their considerable influence to bear on the parties negotiating the peace accords, and in the end contributed to the signing of the accords and peace for El Salvador. A similar coordinated effort could be constructed around child labor policies and their enforcement. And, because coffee importers and roasters are ³#1 clients² of producing countries, such efforts could potentially result in more expeditious action and subsequent impact than ILO and other NGO activities are able to produce.

Taking Care of Coffee's Children

Child labor may always be a reality of life in coffee producing countries, but it doesnıt necessarily need to be harmful to children. In an industry that continues to report record profits, the disparity in the economic situations of farmers and farm workers, industry players, and consumers is dramatic. Unless consumers and industry decide to share the benefits of trade fairly with producer partners, exploitative child labor will continue to exist in the coffee industry. Until now, many companies have turned a blind eye to the issue of child labor mainly because they feel like there is nothing they can do, its not their responsibility, or they simply donıt know what to do. As outlined in this article, opportunities to make a difference on the child labor issue do exist right now, and new, innovative opportunities can be developed with industry commitment, foresight and collaboration. The coffee industry must determine if it is up to the task of improving the situation of child labor, then move forward with committed action for the benefit of all industry stakeholders - most importantly for coffeeıs children.

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