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Colombia, one of the world’s biggest coffee producers, is facing a coffee crisis. This time, it’s not coffee rust or climate change that’s causing it. Instead, it’s good news for the country’s workers – plenty of work that pays better than picking coffee. Over the past few years, the unemployment rate has been steadily dropping in Colombia, and workers who were once desperate enough to accept the meager wages that coffee work pays have been leaving the hills for alternative work. Unlike coffee picking, which is seasonal, precarious and offers no benefits, the jobs available in the cities pay more, have better working conditions and may even offer benefits that most U.S. workers take for granted. The shortage of coffee pickers just may make farmers, exporters and others in the coffee supply chain reevaluate their business status quo.
If you’re a coffee lover, these facts about the people who pick your coffee may make you uncomfortable. It’s far easier to drink your cheap coffee if you don’t think about the people behind it. Coffee pickers are the migrant laborers of the coffee industry. They often work as families, with young children working alongside their parents. On many coffee plantations, they live in “dormitories,” substandard housing with inadequate hygiene and toilet facilities. They work for long hours in the hot sun, and they’re usually paid at the end of the day for the number of baskets they fill with ripe coffee cherries. They get no benefits, are not guaranteed work, and often are cheated of even the low wages they’re promised. More often than not, it’s not because the coffee farmers are cheats, but because the farmers themselves are waiting on buyers and have no money to pay their workers until the crop is sold.
In Colombia and many other coffee producing nations, the difficulty of the work is magnified by the terrain and the conditions under which they work. Unlike countries where coffee is planted in wide fields that can be harvested by machine, coffee in Colombia grows on steep hillsides that are difficult to climb and navigate. In countries that specialize in shade-grown and organic coffee, most coffee cherries must be picked by hand. That means that farmers must find workers to pick their crops – and they must do it with very limited resources.
As other industries take hold in coffee producing nations, those industries are offering steady, better paying work, often with benefits and stability that’s not available to coffee pickers. Coffee farmers find it harder and harder to get people who are wiling to pick coffee at low wages and under poor conditions. As a result, coffee fields go unharvested, and coffee exports will drop. The long-term effects for countries that depend on coffee as a mainstay of their economies is even bleaker – they’ll see a drop in their gross national product, resulting in less money in their economies.
Coffee is one of the products most identified with the Fair Trade, a paradigm that uses price floors and coffee cooperatives to put more money into the hands of coffee farmers, with the condition that they meet certain standards, including standards for treatment and payment of their coffee pickers. But Fair Trade is limited in its scope, and this has given rise to a number of other coffee trading models. Some of the most promising include direct trade, a model in which coffee roasters form long-term relationships with coffee growers. These relationships allow the coffee roasters and coffee importers to make significant investments in training and financing the coffee farming partners. While the end goal is better coffee, the by-product of these partnerships is more stability for both coffee farmers and the people they employ.
Direct trade is not the only alternative to coffee as usual or Fair Trade. The Internet has opened new possibilities for small coffee farmers. As more and more coffee farmers become online savvy, many of them are turning to selling their coffee directly to consumers. Others are partnering with coffee market websites to place their harvested coffee on commission for sale directly to consumers, while some large coffee companies – notably Starbucks – are exploring micro finance and other ways of supporting small coffee farmers who are not part of coffee coops or collectives.
The largest coffee companies may soon find themselves having to join the revolution as coffee pickers follow the path of migrant workers in the U.S. to demand fair wages and better working conditions. While this may sound scary to coffee consumers – rising coffee prices scare everyone – history has proven that those fears are relatively unfounded. The actual price increases on produce when migrant farm workers demanded fair treatment were insignificant, and there’s no reason to expect that paying coffee pickers fairly and treating them with dignity will be any different.