Coffee Without a Perk
by Laura Johnson
Starbucks Coffee has received world-renowned recognition as the trendiest coffee house ever since magazines and movies alike boasted the super-chain. Starbucks is inescapable, whether you see it on TV being held by Britney Spears, or in every mall, strip-mall, or outlet center across the United States. Their signature frappuccinos and macchiatos are what helped Starbucks earn more then $6.4 billion USD in 2005 alone. However Starbucks isn’t the only place in America where coffee is sold. The emphasis is put primarily on the coffee industry and the child slave labors that are forced to work in the fields rather in school.
One reason why young children are put to work everyday is sometimes based on poverty and the fact that some families cannot afford proper education for their children. The children are then forced to work in the fields and help support their family. A recent census shows that 38-52% of the Latin American population was under the age of 18. Having children work for little or no money at all allows big industry to make a much higher profit. When child slaves are put to work it is often hot outside, with long hours, and they are sometimes subjected to brutality.
Their pay is based on how much product they collect. This standard of payment however turns out to be barely minimum wage which can hardly support a family. In Kenya, the workers get paid three to four times less than the minimum wage which is at least $40 USD a month. Unfortunately, children are able to be taken advantage of, “There is a control and power issue with children, they don¹t form unions, they don¹t strike and you can beat them.”
Many family farms exist to support the families that operate them. These farms generally produce a variety of subsistence crops as well as one or more cash crops such as coffee. The money the family makes from the cash crops is used to purchase products they do not produce, and is also used to buy medicine and other essential items. On family farms children start to work at a very young age which becomes their way of life since they do not attend school. Tasks children do include helping around the house, taking care of younger siblings, harvesting the subsistence crops, and other work related to the coffee harvest. Since this is a family farm, children do not come in contact with dangerous conditions that could harm them.
Poverty is the contributing factor to these forms of child labor. With low pay and very hard work, all family members must work to support their family unit and survive. With little money and no education, child labor is an unfortunate cycle that is passed from generation to generation. Parents even sell their children into bonded labor because they are too poor and see no other alternative.
Coffee growing is a very labor intensive product to harvest. Since quality is a significant factor, extra time and attention is required throughout the cultivation process. Coffee experts estimate that it takes approximately 2.2 hours of labor to produce one pound of coffee.
Pressure to keep the commodity price of coffee low has driven labor costs down even more. Many laborers have been laid off in favor of hiring cheaper, temporary, migrant workers outside the protection of their government. As a result, this has increased the use of child labor in order for families to make ends meet. Today child labor comprises a large percentage of the overall work force.
In Kenya, approximately 4 million children ages ranging from 6-14 were reported working in the commercial agricultural department. In the plantations about 50-60 percent of the workers during coffee pickings peak season were children. The children working in this kind of environment are exposed to various diseases. Such as malaria, influenza, and pneumonia. These children are not only exposed to the many diseases but also to the filthy drinking water. Americans should be concerned the most because we are the nation that buys and consumes the most coffee beans.
Government officials have scantily tried to protect and stand up for children’s rights. They have overseen the children as mere slaves, and believe they do not deserve adequate health plans and education. Although laws do exists, they are rarely enforced and hardly noticed. Even if a violation occurs it is never harmful to the plantation owner because of how small the infraction costs. “The 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,” this quote stated by COVERCO in their 1999 study of Guatemalan coffee industry proves that insufficiency of protection of child slave labor laws will only elongate this destructive usage of children as slaves.
In most coffee communities schools are secluded and basically inaccessible. If children past the age of 10 want to attend school they must walk several miles. Even where schools are within reach, families often cannot afford the fees and expenses. Children have little influence over whether they attend school or work. With inadequate education, that leaves children with little opportunity to choose another vocation. Once most young boys and girls begin to work, they rarely return to school.
With most consumers now aware of child labor issues, many coffee companies have sought a guarantee from growers prohibiting child labor. Unfortunately this is a band aid approach. The sad reality is that child labor still does exist and companies need to be more proactive instead of reactive once they get caught. Industries need to work together with local authorities to make sure kids attend school. If companies are really interested in impacting the situation they would take more of a leadership role in understanding the poverty / child labor cycle.
As long as poverty exists, children will continue to work in the coffee trade. Therefore the coffee industry needs to treat this as more than a public relation issue. They need to look further at the social and economic reasons why this exists and improve industry practices. At a minimum access to basic health care, food and housing is essential to all children working on plantations or family farms. Better wages and prices should help make this possible which the coffee industry needs to closely examine. The ultimate goal is for children of coffee producing counties to live as healthy and educated as children in the US coffee industry.
Although the child slave labor is still a major cause of concern, recent reports have shown that the number of children slaves is declining. The International Labor Organization said that between 2000 and 2004 the number of slaves went from 246 million to 218 million. Children from ages 5-17 have reportedly dropped drastically from 171 million in 2000 to 126 million in 2004. These sudden decrease in children slave labor is partly because of new governmental concern, greater awareness, poverty decline and a newly reformed education system.
In order for child slave labor to be put to an end many groups and agencies had to step forward and start a plan of action. This plan is known as IPEC, which stands for International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor. Over 175 countries have joined this fight against child slavery which prohibits the use of any child under 18 years of age to work as a slave or bonded labor, child pornography, drug trafficking, or work that harms the physical, emotional, and physiological mind of a child.
Not only should the children be placed out of the working environment, but they should then be placed in school systems and properly educated and also be provided with counseling and rehabilitation. Even though the children no longer have to work and provide for their poverty stricken family there has to be another solution to fix the family’s situation. The United States has helped the IPEC in part by granting them $6 million to help support their programs.
In Brazil alone, child slaves ages 5-9 have decreased 61 percent over twelve years and ages 10-17 have dropped 36 percent as well. Throughout Asia the number of child slaves has decreased, however, there are still 121 million slaves to this day. The African region also has the highest number of child slaves ranging from 40-50 million children still employed. "In this 21st century, no child should be brutalized by exploitation or be placed in hazardous work," Somavia said. "No child should be denied access to education. No child should have to slave for his or her survival”