Bitter Coffee – Guatemala


Shortly after the report published in March based on widespread slavery and forced labor in Brazil coffee farms, investigation shows that working conditions of coffee farms in Guatemala are also characterized by extensive violations of the law, including illegal child labor and forced labor. Let’s see what Danwatch had to find out about.

The investigation shows that illegal child labour and signs of forced labour are widespread.  Furthermore, workers and union representatives who try to defend the rights of coffee workers risk not only being fired, but also threats and violence.

“Working conditions in Guatemala are characterised by extensive violations of the law. By and large, out on the plantations, no one knows anything about unions or labour ministry inspectors,” says Jesper Nielsen, an international advisor at 3F.

Young children picking coffee

Danwatch visited Guatemala and obtained evidence of child labour in the form of both photographic documentation of young children picking coffee as well as of interviews with coffee workers who stated that their own children, some as young as five years old, have worked picking coffee.

According to Mario Minera, National Director of Mediation and Conflict Resolution for the Guatemalan government’s independent human rights ombudsman, child labour on coffee plantations is a consequence of the way in which the workers are compensated.

“The more coffee the workers pick, the more they earn. This is why they bring their wives and children to the plantations – so they can pick more coffee and earn more money,” says Minera.

Even when coffee workers are helped by their wives and children, the whole family working together often cannot pick enough coffee to earn even one minimum wage. The workers interviewed by Danwatch say they go to bed hungry most nights.

Guatemala is one of the world’s ten largest exporters of coffee. Most of its exports go to the United States and Europe, including Denmark, where it is often sold as a gourmet product.

Signs of forced labour

Many of Guatemala’s coffee workers are internal migrants, who journey with their families to coffee plantations for work during the harvest. A large number are of Mayan descent, and do not necessarily speak Spanish. On some plantations, the workers end up in debt spirals.  They pick coffee without receiving pay while they buy food on credit from the plantation owner. Despite poor working conditions, it is difficult for them to leave the plantations, because their identification papers have been withheld, they owe money to the plantation owners, and the plantations are guarded by armed men.

“If people end up in debt as a result of their employment, and if their personal identification papers are withheld, you’ve got both obvious violations of some of the most basic labour rights and indicators of forced labour. So these are very abusive conditions,” says Anders Lisborg, an international expert in forced labour and human trafficking.

Union organising is dangerous

Because of armed attacks, murder, and a lack of due process, Guatemala is among the ten worst countries in the world in which to be a labourer, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). According to their statistics, at least 53 union representatives have been murdered between 2007 and 2013; at least seven more have been killed since.  Many more have been threatened or attacked.

The coffee workers interviewed by Danwatch in Guatemala say that they would be fired and prevented from working elsewhere if they complained about conditions on the plantations.  They don’t dare organise into unions for fear of being persecuted, threatened or killed.

In part because the workers are not unionised, they lack written contracts, and frequently receive no formal pay slips.

Gourmet coffee does not ensure better conditions

According to José Chic, a member of the labour union Comité Campesino del Altiplano, child labour and minimum wage violations are found even on plantations where luxury coffee is grown.

“Just because a coffee plantation is wealthy and produces high-quality coffee does not mean that its working conditions are any different,” he says.

This was confirmed by one of the coffee workers Danwatch met in Guatemala. He recounted how he ended up in a debt spiral, and his personal ID papers withheld, on a Guatemalan coffee plantation that wins medals for the quality of its coffee.

Consumers are part of the solution

Danwatch sought comment from the coffee plantation owners’ trade organisation in Guatemala, Anacafé, regarding the problems of child labour, indicators of forced labour, minimum wage violations, and lack of contracts on coffee plantations in the country.

In its response to Danwatch, Anacafé wrote that it is unaware of the presence of forced labour in the coffee sector, but that it educates coffee plantation owners on the rights of workers and has been working to combat child labour.

“Anacafé acknowledges that there are significant challenges in the coffee value chain.  Anacafé will continue to work and engage itself in the sector in an effort to make improvements as well as to foster social, economic and environmental sustainability,” writes the trade organisation.

According to Anacafé, however, its efforts to promote change will not be enough if consumers and businesses do not also become engaged.

“If Anacafé’s work to promote more sustainable coffee production is to succeed, it is imperative that the industry and coffee consumers also become involved in the process,” the organisation writes. In its opinion, profits are distributed unequally in the coffee supply chain.

“Consumers don’t realise that less than one percent of their purchase price goes to the producer.”

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