This is not a diatribe against coffee as either a beverage choice or an economic commodity. Nor is it a story about the evils of child labor.
We have all heard of the past nightmares of child labor in the mines and factories of the US and elsewhere, and the ongoing evil of the child slavery in the cocoa plantations in Africa. We can all reasonably agree that in a perfect world a child’s job would be attending school, playing sports in the sunshine, learning to be a competent adult, and not having to worry about “bringing home the bacon” for the family, especially during his elementary school years.
Honduras and Guatemala are, of course, anything but perfect.
Our pal, Manuel, is a typical Chortí Maya sixth grader, living in a rural aldea (village) in the heart of good coffee country: the mountains of western Honduras. He picks coffee with all of his friends and family during the winter months. On the day we spoke with Manuel, he and his cousin Alejandro, and their friend Miguel, all 12 years old, were picking and sorting coffee for a local coffee finca, or farm. For their labors, after packing three 50-pound bags and carrying them down the mountain (approximately two miles), they hope to earn 100 lempira, about $5.00 USD, or roughly $1.66 each for the day. Are they being taken advantage of?
Honduras is very poor. About 70% of the indigenous Chortí Maya live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 a day. Most are subsistence farmers dependent on what crops they can grow for their own food. Most, if not all, of their hard currency income is earned during the coffee season. Every little bit helps.
A Few Facts about Honduras and Coffee
Honduras ranks first in Central America, third in Latin America, and seventh globally in coffee exports by volume. That’s a lot of coffee. Coffee accounts for 27% of Honduras’s GDP. In a country that is so poor that an estimated 20% of foreign exchange is money wired back to their families by Hondurans working in other countries, coffee is a huge part of the national economy. One in three Hondurans of all ages are involved in some way in the production of coffee.
Coffee harvesting is very labor intensive, maybe more so than any other crop. It is practically impossible to mechanize the harvest in Honduras for many reasons.
First, the terrain in which good coffee is grown is generally forested, steep, often rocky, and at altitude.
Second is the nature of the coffee tree itself. Coffee cherries do not ripen all at the same time. It’s not unusual to see a coffee tree with flowers and ripe berries simultaneously. While the harvest generally takes place over a three- to four-month season, each tree must be harvested several times during that time period, taking only the ripe cherries and leaving the rest to grow.
Lastly, the machines that harvest coffee are wheeled vehicles that are expensive, and harvest by shaking the tree, causing most, if not all, of the cherries to fall at once, ripe and unripe alike. The immature cherries (about 25% at the peak of the harvest season) are sacrificed as wastage, (they will not roast), which is by itself expensive. This works out economically only for very large corporate farms, on flat land, without too many other trees. It also produces an inferior coffee that is largely sold only for instant coffees and the like.
90% of the coffee in Honduras is produced by small farms producing less than 77 132-pound bags of coffee a year—more than 85,000 such farms. Even if the topography allowed it, these small farmers could not begin to afford the harvesting equipment, or the fuel to run them, much less the wastage it would produce.
It takes 2,000 coffee cherries—about what one mature, good-quality tree grows in a year—to produce a single pound of roasted coffee. Each of those cherries must be picked by hand.
Honduras produces about 4.1 million 132-pound bags of coffee per year. That is well over a trillion coffee berries. How do you get enough labor to pick that much coffee by hand?
In Honduras you hire 500,000 temporary workers. You can only hire those live in the rural areas, close to the coffee fincas, of course. Since over half of Hondurans live in the cities your labor pool must then include nearly everybody else.
Coffee picking is a learned skill. To get the harvest in, the workers must AVERAGE around 2,500 coffee berries picked and sorted per worker per hour… 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for three months. Coffee pickers are paid by the amount they individually harvest, not by the hour, so it is important to develop speed and skill in order to maximize their income over the short season.
But I Buy Fair Trade Coffee…Aren’t There Laws?
It is important to know that the “Fair Trade” label is just that: a label. It is a commercial enterprise with no governmental oversight or enforcement powers. It sells that label to those who can afford it, which in Honduras, is not many. While it does require that participating labelers not “knowingly” use child labor, its enforcement is lax at best, and there are many loopholes and exceptions. For instance, a great deal of Guatemalan coffee marketed under the fair trade label by large retailers, actually comes from Honduras, where it was almost certainly picked in part by children. For more on the Fair Trade label click here.
Honduran Law provides that children under 15 should not work—but that only applies to companies with more than 10 full-time, permanent workers. If a child’s income is necessary to the well-being of the family then they are exempt. These two loopholes exempt almost all of the coffee fincas and harvesters from the law, and even if those loopholes were closed, with 85,000 coffee fincas, effective enforcement of child labor laws would be impossible.
In the US, child labor on coffee fincas as practiced in Honduras would be entirely legal in 13 states, and partially legal (with limitations on children under 12) in more than half.
Coffee in Honduras is the most egalitarian of businesses, at least at the lower end. It is important to note here that, unlike the days of the robber-barons and child labor in the factories of the US, there is no evil empire involved in the child labor of the coffee harvest. The pay is low but the profit margins, and the size of the majority of the growers, are small and they pay what they can afford to. The gap between harvesters and growers is just not that big.
To prevent the harvest from interfering with education, Honduras’ school year is built around the harvest, so the children are out of school on their annual break when they are needed in the fields. The growers often plant their trees in alternating rows, tall trees next to short ones, so that families can stay together and supervise their children while working. There is no “forced” labor; these children are not slaves. There is no obligation (other than economic necessity) for them to pick, and they are paid the same rate as adults for the weight of coffee harvested.
Realistically, picking coffee at a young age is the only way for the children to acquire the skills needed to do it successfully as adults, and adulthood comes far earlier in Honduras then it does in a first-world nation. You can’t teach it in school, and all too soon (most Honduran kids don’t continue education beyond sixth grade) they will have to be able to support families of their own. It took about five minutes of watching three sixth graders do the job, for us reasonably well-educated and skilled adult gringos to realize that they could do the job far faster and with much more skill than we could possibly muster. A lot of the job is done by feel, and experience is the only way to learn that.
The kids themselves look forward to the harvest. Of course, there is an expected happy-to-be-out-of-school element to this, but they also receive new or second-hand clothes, better food, and maybe a treat or small toy thanks to their work. Children too young (and that’s REALLY young) are disappointed at being excluded from the picking and clamor to be allowed to help.
And it is an absolute economic necessity. Many—if not most—of these families teeter on the edge of malnutrition or starvation, and must deal with endemic parasitic disease, bad water, and little or no health care. With increasing food costs due to several years of drought, no good economic alternatives, and poor education, they must find their survival where they can. Coffee, at least in the short term, provides the children and their families some small income on which to live.
In the long term, efforts by the Honduran Government and NGO’s like ours hope to provide kids with better education, healthcare and opportunities so that work in the fields isn’t their only life choice. In the short term, a child’s right to eat must outweigh other considerations.