Closer to a Living Wage

The coffee industry has long cared about improving farm workers’ lot. The next step is to guarantee them a living wage.


Photos: André Berlinck.

Work is scarce at this time of year back home,” says Renilson de Souza.

This, he says, is why he traveled with his wife, children, mother, father, and brother to work on the coffee harvest at Ponto Alegre farm. It’s a journey that took the de Souza family from the north to the south of the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil—a trek of 600 miles.

Even at that distance, it’s certainly worth making the trip. “We always spend the winter months harvesting coffee,” explains thirty-one-year-old Renilson. “This is a very productive farm and we get paid for how much we harvest. We earn as much in three months here as we would in nine months on the minimum wage back home.”
Working with handheld mechanical harvesting devices they can pick an average of 440 kilos of coffee cherries a day, which results in an income equivalent to thirty to forty US dollars. This is significantly more than a worker would make in many other coffee-producing countries. The family lives in a house on the farm, and the children go to school in the village.

Renilson and his family are among the tens of millions of men, women, and children employed worldwide to harvest coffee. For the de Souzas, working in coffee provides a decent livelihood during the months of the harvest. That’s far from the reality for everyone.

Renilson's brother Jonas (left) and his parents Luzita and Adão also travelled with him to work at the farm.
Renilson’s brother Jonas (left) and his parents Luzita and Adão also travelled with him to work at the farm.

Let’s be clear: working on a coffee farm is tough, whether it’s in Brazil or any other country. It’s hard, physical work. Harvesting coffee means carrying heavy loads. Coffee grows best at high altitudes, usually on mountains, which means many workers around the world have to navigate steep, dangerous ground. The hours are long and the weather can be harsh.

When the development agency Solidaridad surveyed farmworkers early this year on behalf of the Sustainability Council of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, workers reported that the most dangerous and undesirable tasks are applying pesticides, which is often done without protective equipment, and shade management, for which workers must climb to great heights to manually remove branches with saws.

If the working conditions themselves are difficult, in many coffee-producing countries the terms of employment can be even worse. Often workers don’t have contracts, as they’re hired informally to avoid labor regulations and keep wages low. This also means they can’t access benefits like pensions, paid holidays, or insurance, which are set out in law by many countries. Often it is only the male heads of household who are officially registered as employed, even though their wives and children also join them in the fields. Workers often find employment through labor brokers, and there can be issues with these middlemen taking excessive fees from workers’ wages.

In coffee farming, extra labor is needed at certain times of year, and it’s usually seasonal workers who suffer the most. They’re more likely to be employed informally, and they tend to do more dangerous work, earn less, and face more discrimination.

Like the de Souza family, many seasonal workers travel to find employment. This tends to put them in a more vulnerable position, particularly if they cross national borders. For example, workers in Nicaragua often migrate to neighboring countries like Costa Rica or Honduras in search of higher wages, and they sometimes enter on tourist visas, so they lose their legal right to work, which hurts their ability to seek redress for unlawful treatment.

Often coffee farms are in very isolated locations, and many of the workers are a long way from home, so the farm provides housing. Among the many workers I have met and spoken with, poor-quality housing is one of the biggest issues they face. Often men, women, and children all live together in warehouse-like buildings with up to sixty people to a room.

Farmers at Fazenda Ponto Alegre in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

In the worst cases, we’re talking about real modern slavery. A report recently published by Danwatch, an independent Danish media and research center, highlighted cases of human trafficking in Brazil: men, women, and children picking coffee without a contract and without being paid, while also building up debt to the plantation owner for food and transport.

Some of these cases are closer to home than you might imagine. In 2012, the US Department of Labor cited a rash of farms for labor violations in Kona, Hawaii’s famed coffeeland. Farm owners were made to pay 150 pickers, some of them exploited migrant laborers. Even a labor broker was implicated. Worse, investigators found two five-year-old children picking cherries.

How can this still happen in this day and age? It’s a story as old as time, where those without money or power are vulnerable to exploitation. Certain groups of workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse: women, children, descendants of slaves, indigenous people, and migrant laborers.

At the consumer level, these issues are often obscure, but coffee drinkers want to know their coffee was ethically produced. Research shows that nine in ten of us now expect companies to do more than just make a profit. According to the National Coffee Drinking Trends 2016 report, sourcing from “farms that treat workers well” is one of the claims that most motivates US consumers to purchase a specific coffee.

More and more, coffee companies large and small are taking action to meet this consumer demand. In addition, companies realize that improving sustainability can lead to a more reliable and better-quality supply.

For many, third party certification is the most reliable and simplest way to meet expectations about sustainability. Farmers follow a set of sustainability requirements that are aligned with the most important international conventions on labor practices; if they pass an audit they can sell their coffee as certified; the coffee is traced through the supply chain and roasters can talk to consumers about the sustainable origin of their coffee.

More and more studies show the positive impact of certification. For example, at UTZ we recently commissioned a third-party study of UTZ-certified farms in Brazil that found 70 percent of workers said they had directly seen the benefits of certification, with improved health and safety at work, and appropriate facilities such as canteens and lavatories cited as direct improvements. This came alongside wider benefits for the farms, such as improved coffee quality, lower production costs, and significant local environmental improvements such as better soil quality.

The recent Danwatch report found that the situation on certified farms is better, with significantly better conditions for workers. Vilson Luiz da Silva, head of Minas Gerais’s largest agricultural workers’ union, FETAEMG, is quoted in the report saying, “The certified plantations know that if they don’t observe the rules and ensure good working conditions, they will lose their next order. So certification does make a big difference.”

For Renilson and his family, working on a certified farm has certainly made a difference. He says that Ponto Alegre offers better conditions than many other farms. “Staying at a certified farm has given us more comfort both for ourselves and for our children who can go to school nearby,” he says.

Companies may be starting to take action through certification and other sustainable sourcing practices like direct trade, but what about the role of governments?

Renilson and the rest of the de Souza family live and work in Brazil, the world’s biggest coffee producer by a long shot. In fact, so much coffee is grown in their state, Minas Gerais, that if it were a country it would top the list of producers. Brazil has a relatively strong legal framework with regard to workers’ rights. At least until 2013, when a serious economic downturn began, social conditions across the country have been consistently improving, thanks in large part to rising minimum wages and the expansion of social policies.

Renilson De Souza travelled 600 miles to work at Ponto Alegre in the southern portion of Minas Gerais in Brazil.
Renilson De Souza travelled 600 miles to work at Ponto Alegre in the southern portion of Minas Gerais in Brazil.

Brazil has also led the way when it comes to national efforts to eradicate modern slavery. In 1995, the country officially recognized the existence of modern slavery and established a mobile inspection group within the Ministry of Labor and Employment. A new organization was launched in May 2014 to strengthen and expand implementation of the national Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor, and it brings together organizations from across the country.

However, in practice, even in Brazil there is still further work needed when it comes to implementation and enforcement of the stringent labor legislations. Within Brazil there are large disparities between regions and social groups. Workers in rural areas and in the northeast of the country tend to face the worst conditions.

Indeed, this inconsistent (or in some cases nonexistent) enforcement of the law is found across the industry. All coffee-growing countries are signatories to the core International Labour Organization’s conventions, and their national laws do formally comply with these standards. The practices at farms are rather different, because of lack of resources, political will, or both.

In cases where enforcement is weak, certifications can play an important role. The study of UTZ-certified farms in Brazil found that a certification program like UTZ can complement national law and contribute to a stronger culture of legal compliance. The study cites both farmers and government representatives who say the yearly certification audits by UTZ and others act is a strong incentive for farmers to comply with Brazilian laws and regulations.

What’s clear is that no single actor can work alone—to make real change we need to see farmers, companies, governments, and civil society all working together. Many of the challenges faced by farmers and workers have their root cause far beyond the farm gate.

Take the issue of wages. It’s all very well and good to tell a farmer that he must pay his workers more, but how much would be enough? Why should he pay more when the other farms nearby don’t offer a better deal? On top of all that, how can he afford to pay more when the price he receives for his coffee is too low?

A concept that is picking up pace to help answer these questions is the idea of a living wage, and it also offers a great opportunity for the sector to pull together to make a difference. A living wage is the amount needed for a decent standard of living based on local conditions and living costs. That covers food, housing, education, health, and a small provision for unexpected events. This amount is usually very different from the legal minimum wage.

Six leading sustainability certification standards—UTZ along with Fairtrade International, Forest Stewardship Council, GoodWeave, Sustainable Agriculture Network/Rainforest Alliance, and Social Accountability International—have come together to promote the concept of a living wage and jointly address this global challenge. We have joined hands and created the Global Living Wage Coalition, which is taking the lead on building a global database of benchmarks for the living wage, using rigorous academic studies based on a clear methodology, that set out exactly how much a living wage would be in a specific region, based on local costs.

One of the latest to be released is for Minas Gerais, where Renilson and his family work. It shows that the prevailing wage is the equivalent of 383 US dollars per month, whereas a living wage would be $477.

The research has practical results. For example, within UTZ we have made it a requirement that farms make progress towards paying the living wage. Having a well-researched benchmark and local buy-in is essential to this process.

But the research also has bigger implications. It’s about starting a dialogue with actors across the sector. If we know what a living wage would be, and a farmer shows that he cannot pay it with the income he receives, that realization has the potential to spark change in the supply chain. Workers have the information they need to negotiate; governments are challenged to set minimum wages based on the real cost of living; and companies can look at their own supply chains accordingly.

In the end, change will come through the momentum that continues to build across the sector. There’s still a long way to go but we are seeing the companies who have the power to make a difference making major commitments. We are seeing civil society work tirelessly to expose poor practices. We are seeing a growing body of research on what a sustainable coffee sector would look like, and how much workers should actually be paid. The knowledge gap is beginning to close. That means we can say loud and clear: we know what a sustainable coffee sector would look like. Let’s make it happen.

Miguel Zamora is the head of the Americas region at UTZ