Research Analysis: Coffee Labor In The Borderlands 


Coffee labor is a global commodity, and the livelihoods of coffee workers across the world rely on this industry. There are many challenges that these workers face-from low wages to low education levels-that make life difficult for them and their families. 

The future of coffee labor, though, is uncertain due to climate change and shifting patterns in global demand. 

This article explores these issues and highlights current initiatives that seek to improve the working conditions of coffee laborers.

An Introduction To Coffee Labor In The Global Economy 

If you’re a coffee lover, it’s likely that you have heard about fair trade and direct trade. These phrases are used to describe how some coffee drinkers prefer to purchase their favorite drink from companies who use sustainable business practices and engage directly with coffee growers, giving them a fair price for their beans. 

And while these trends may seem like they’re just being used to sell fancy cups of joe, the reality is that the entire global coffee supply chain-from production to processing to transportation-relies on the labor of thousands each year, including those who produce and harvest coffee beans in third world countries.

Despite this reliance, policymakers and business leaders consistently fail to make the well-being of coffee laborers a priority. 

One main reason for this is that it’s difficult to track who produces what amount of coffee worldwide, meaning that there are no official statistics regarding how many people work in the industry, which companies are sourcing their beans responsibly, and what living conditions are like for coffee laborers. 

Additionally, it’s hard to tell how the sustainability of the industry will change in response to shifting demand patterns, increasing prices of land and labor costs, and growing concerns about how climate change will affect crop yields.

The current state of coffee labor is bleak. While coffee workers in countries like Costa Rica reported that they were not paid any wages for their labor, laborers in other parts of the world saw their earnings decline or stagnate. 

And although some companies are attempting to make labor practices more sustainable, many have failed to move beyond fair trade labels and certification programs. 

Meanwhile, climate change has worsened conditions for coffee laborers, which has contributed to increased poverty and food insecurity.

However, there are some positive initiatives that aim to improve the lives of coffee workers worldwide. Some companies have begun to pay coffee laborers a fair wage for their labor. 

Additionally, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and aid groups aim to provide laborers with education opportunities and better working conditions.

The Changing Face Of Coffee Labor 

Coffee is one of the most traded and popular commodities in the world, with an estimated 16 million bags of coffee being produced each year. 

And while it may seem like a relatively unassuming crop with low labor requirements, the reality is that thousands depend on this industry for their income and livelihoods.

Part of this reliance is due to the fact that coffee is one of the most valuable agricultural commodities worldwide, with retail sales reaching $83 billion in 2016 and exports worth $17 billion in 2017. 

This has led coffee companies to take advantage of workers and their families, who are often forced into poverty because the companies pay them too little.

Not only this but workers are often exposed to hazardous conditions because companies don’t do enough to provide for their safety. Coffee harvesters have reported being exposed to dangerous chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizers. 

And while many coffee plantations are located in tropical areas to ensure high-quality harvests, this can leave workers vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Impacts Of Climate Change On Coffee Labor 

Much like other industries, the global coffee industry is feeling the effects of climate change. Between 2001 and 2014, forest fires increased by 300% in Southeast Asia, which drove up deforestation rates across the region. 

This has had dire consequences for workers who depend on coffee plantations for their livelihoods, such as those in Indonesia.

In the past several years, Indonesia has begun to recover from deforestation and forest fires. However, it’s unlikely that all coffee plantations will fully recover. 

This is because many of these plantations were located in places with poor soil quality and unsuitable conditions for plant growth. As a result, many plantations will likely face challenges in maintaining high-quality yields.

The impact of climate change on coffee production has also had dire consequences for the workers who depend on it to survive. 

In recent years, extreme weather events and drought caused some plantations to limit their harvesting seasons, which meant that workers would not be paid any wages for their labor.

In 2016, a study by the Climate Institute found that extreme weather events caused an increase in food prices and a decline in farm wages. 

This was particularly marked during the El Niño weather pattern, which is characterized by higher-than-average sea surface temperatures across parts of the Pacific Ocean. 

As a result of this pattern, climate change has led to poor harvests, which in turn affected the wages that coffee workers would receive.

How Does Coffee Labor Affect Consumers? 

While it may seem like you’re making a charitable donation when purchasing fair trade-certified coffee products, chances are these purchases aren’t doing much to improve the lives of coffee laborers. In fact, you’re probably hurting them.

That’s because when coffee companies sell fair trade-certified products, they often use this as a way to justify charging higher prices. 

When you purchase these products, you may feel good about what you’ve done and assume that your money is going to help improve the lives of laborers. But this is often not the case.

For example, research shows that higher financial returns for coffee growers actually exacerbate inequality in the fields, as these farmers are able to purchase more land and machinery to increase their yields. 

As a result, this means that many workers will have to rely on lower-paying work in fishing or agriculture, instead of working on coffee plantations that offer higher wages.

The Fair Trade Scandal 

Despite marketing campaigns that promote the benefits of fair trade-certified products for coffee laborers, there’s still significant room for improvement in this area of business. 

For example, even though a coffee plantation may be certified as a “fair trade” company, that doesn’t mean that the workers are paid fairly.

One of the most disconcerting problems with fair trade-certified products is that there’s no way to verify whether the claims made by companies are true. 

And because coffee plantations can be certified as “fair trade” by groups like Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), these plantations could theoretically make false claims about their product and still be considered legitimate.

This creates a system in which it’s virtually impossible to protect consumers from purchasing counterfeit “fair trade”-certified products. 

If you wanted to see if the coffee company was actually paying its workers fairly, there would be no way to verify that without sending undercover investigators into the plantations.

As a result, the only thing you’re guaranteed to receive from purchasing fair trade-certified products is a higher price tag – and this often isn’t even true. In fact, some studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay almost double for products that are certified as “fair trade”, as compared with those that come from non-certified plantations.

This creates a double standard for what’s deemed as “fair trade” and what isn’t. When it comes to coffee, prices aren’t actually tied to working conditions or the quality of the final product – they’re based on whether or not a company wants to label its packaging as fair trade. 

And because there’s no oversight when it comes to verifying these claims, there’s no way for consumers to know whether or not the “fair trade” label is a scam.

What Can Consumers Do to Combat This Problem? 

While fair trade certification sounds like a great idea, the coffee industry is rife with examples of companies using this standard as a way to justify overcharging for their products and hurting the laborers they claim to protect.

As a result, it’s important for consumers like you to become educated about this problem and make more informed choices when it comes to your coffee purchases. That means looking beyond claims on packaging and doing research into how your coffee is actually sourced.

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