Removing the clouds from your coffee

Last week the UK’s Channel 4 Dispatches programme highlighted child labour on Guatemala’s coffee farms. Posing as researchers, the Dispatches’ team visited farms they were told supply Starbucks or Nespresso. They found children as young as 11 or 12 working long hours in gruelling conditions for as little as £5 per day.

The programme found that most of the children were working to help feed their families, and highlighted the piteously small amount of money that coffee farmers receive for their beans. The programme put the the average cost of a cup of coffee in the UK at £2.50 of which the coffee shop receives 88p, staff receive 63p, and the taxman 38p. The programme estimated miscellaneous costs at 28p and profit for the brand owner (ie Starbucks or Nespresso) at 25p. This leaves 10p for the coffee supplier, of which only 1p goes to the farmer. A fraction of that 1p goes to the coffee pickers.

You can perhaps argue whether that breakdown is accurate, but whatever the exact figures, the coffee farmer receives only a tiny proportion of the final sale price of his production. Poverty is widespread in coffee-growing areas throughout the world, and local families often have no choice but to send their children out to work at a young age.

Although it is no excuse, this situation is not new. In his book ‘Uncommon Grounds – The history of coffee and how it transformed our world’, Mark Pendergast writes, “Children begin helping with the harvest when they are seven or eight. Though many campesinos keep their children out of school at other times for other reasons, it’s no coincidence that school vacation in Guatemala coincides with the coffee harvest.’

It is not clear whether the Dispatches team filmed the children during school vacation, or whether the children were skipping school to work, but both Starbucks and Nespresso have made clear that child labour is unacceptable at any time in their supply chain.

In a statement George Clooney, Nespresso’s ambassador, said “I was surprised and saddened to see this story. Clearly this board and this company still have work to do. And that work will be done. I would hope that this reporter will continue to investigate these conditions and report accurately if they do not improve.”

Meanwhile, also in a statement, Nespresso’s chief executive said that the company had launched an investigation to find out which farms were filmed and whether they supply Nespresso. “We will not resume purchases of coffee from farms in this area until the investigation is closed,” he added.

Starbucks also said that it had launched an investigation into the claims brought by Channel 4. “We can confirm we have not purchased coffee from the farms in question during the most recent harvest season, and we will not do so until we can verify that they are not in breach of C.A.F.E. Practices – our ethical sourcing program developed in partnership with Conservation International that provides comprehensive social, environmental and economic standards, including zero tolerance for child labour.”

However, in an interview with The Guardian, the Dispatches’ reporter said that it was far too easy to to announce an investigation and halt supplies from these regions, but doing so will further punish the farmers and the desperately poor families who rely on them. “The reason these kids are working is that their parents – and the farms they work on – are not paid enough,” he added.

Unfortunately, problems in the coffee supply chain are not limited to Guatemala. A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation published last December, uncovered extensive slave labour in Brazil’s coffee industry. The investigation found that coffee produced by forced labor was stamped slavery-free by top certification schemes and sold at a premium to major brands such as Starbucks and Nespresso.

The coffee supply chain has two problems that are common to many commodities sourced in poor countries: lack of transparency and low prices. It therefore really encouraging that the coffee industry is launching two initiatives to combat these two problems.

The first is FarmerConnect, which is built around a blockchain core powered by IBM. The second, again powered by IBM, is the Thank My Farmer app that will be launched later this year. Working in conjunction with FarmerConnect the app will allow consumers to know exactly where their coffee comes from and allow them to contribute directly to the farmer, and/or to support social and educational projects in coffee growing regions.

We will be writing more about these promising initiatives in coming weeks, and of course we give them our full support.

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