Our collective blind spot

Our collective blind spot

Intelligentsia’s Chicago Roasting Works is located in a light industry area a few miles west of the Loop, the center of the city’s financial and cultural districts.  Every morning on my way to work, I walk past manufacturing plants, dodging forklifts and rigs making deliveries and pickups. One morning in early 2017, this sticker on a semi-trailer caught my eye.

It is intended as a courtesy for drivers, of course, telling them that if they can’t see the driver, the driver can’t  see them. But it occurred to me that it might be an appropriate message for coffee farmworkers. After all, farmworkers represent the most numerous and most vulnerable participants in specialty coffee supply chains, but have remained stubbornly isolated from broader currents of concern, conversation, and action in the coffee industry, even over a quarter-century of extraordinary innovation in sustainability.  And this despite the fact that in every coffee origin I know, spending on labor represents the largest portion of a grower’s cost of production.  

Farmworkers and social performance

The conditions of farm labor are vitally important to the social performance of the coffee sector. 

Tens of millions of laborers around the world are dependent on earnings from the annual harvest, and we, in turn — growers, roasters, and consumers — are dependent on them for our coffee. On balance, farmworkers are more vulnerable and less resilient than the small-scale family farmers who have historically been the focus of most social investment in the coffee sector.  This is especially true of seasonal laborers, who work in coffee only part of the year, picking coffee cherry during the harvest.  Some seasonal laborers are migrants who travel from different communities, or even different countries, in search of economic opportunities.  And migrant laborers are the most vulnerable of all, particularly those who belong to ethnic or racial minority groups, are native speakers of indigenous languages, or who cross international borders — their difference and distance from home expose them to added risk.  

There is some good news.  Coffee farmworkers are more visible than ever before, and an increasing number of initiatives designed to make the coffee trade more inclusive have focused their attention on farmworkers in recent years.  But we still know comparatively less about farmworkers than we do about almost every other actor in specialty coffee supply chains, and have not built the same kind of connectivity or direct relationships that we have with individual small-scale family farmers.  And in the context of a coffee price crisis that threatens to put growers out of business, coffee farmworkers are likely to be the first to feel the squeeze.  

Farmworkers and economic performance

The conditions of farm labor are vitally important to the economic performance of the coffee sector. 

For months after that first sighting, I continued to see this sticker on my way to work.  Every time I did, it provoked a similar reflection on farm labor.  Eventually, I decided to poll Intelligentsia’s Direct Trade partners — dozens of growers from coffee origins across Africa and the Americas — about labor issues in our supply chains.  What I learned was consistent with the small but growing body of literature on farm labor in specialty coffee: spending on labor accounts for most of the cost of coffee’s production (62 percent of all production costs for our respondents, on average), paying seasonal labor during harvest is the single largest expense for most growers (39 percent in our survey), and labor scarcity has  become an issue in origins where workers have historically been bountiful. In our survey, labor was disproportionately expensive in Mexico and Central America. While there may be no easy solutions to these challenges, the potential returns to labor innovation seems to make the investment worthwhile.

Farmworkers in focus

Deeper engagement with coffee farmworkers seems to offer real opportunities to improve the social and economic performance of the coffee sector.  And yet, the industry seems to be configured in such a way that farmworkers occupy a kind of collective blind spot. We don’t see them clearly, and they don’t see us, meaning we may be headed for a collision.  At the very least, it means we are likely missing opportunities for action to improve farmworker livelihoods, coffee quality, or both.

Against this backdrop, we are beginning to gather data on coffee farmworkers in our Direct Trade supply chains.  We want to better understand labor dynamics in the origins where we source coffee to ensure we aren’t missing opportunities to make our coffee better and make our  supply chains more resilient.  To that end, we have partnered this year with the Canales family, a long-time Direct Trade partner in Nicaragua, to collect detailed information on its temporary labor force during the 2018/19 harvest, which we have  been poring over in recent weeks. Tomorrow we will publish some of the earliest data we have collected as part of that effort.