September 2, 2019

Instability & Uncertainty: The Labor Market For Coffee Pickers


Every cup of coffee depends on the work of many different people – producers, pickers, roasters, and baristas, to name a few. Harvest time is perhaps the most labor-intensive step of coffee production, especially for farms that handpick their cherries.

And during harvest, it’s all hands on board. Many farms rely on seasonal workers who put in long hours and need to be efficient to make their time worthwhile. Let’s take a closer look at what life is like for coffee pickers when coffee prices are low.

Lee este artículo en español Ser Recolector de Café en un Mercado Laboral Inestable e Inseguro

A coffee picker at work. Credit: Perfect Daily Grind

How Coffee Farms Use Seasonal Workers

The labor requirements of coffee harvesting are determined by the peculiarities of coffee cultivation. Coffee cherries tend to ripen unevenly, so they are often harvested by hand to ensure that only the ripe fruit is picked. For producers with a focus on high cupping scores, this is especially important; even a few under- or over-ripe cherries can quickly lower the quality of the lot.

Many coffee farms have a range of microclimates produced by the altitudes and folds of mountains, so coffee plants ripen at different times on the regional, country, local, and even farm level. In general, the harvest window for most countries is a three to four month span.

Coffee is also usually grown on high, steep mountain slopes, which makes mechanization difficult. On farms with difficult terrain, it can be difficult to access trees even by truck, mule, or foot.

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Besides picking cherries, many harvesters help sort beans with defects. Credit: Ben Weiner

Harvest work is dictated by the ripeness of the cherries and can be unpredictable. If there is a lot of rainfall one day, the cherries on the trees that are at or near full ripeness will swell and can break or crack, or even fall to the ground. If coffee isn’t picked immediately after such weather, quality will suffer or the bean will be ruined. Climate change is making harvest planning even more inconsistent.

If there’s a heavy rainfall on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day would be spent in the fields. No one wanted to spend the day harvesting, but to take the holiday off would mean losing tons of coffee.

Because coffee picking is impossible to mechanize for many producing regions, a lot of hands are needed during harvest time. But because the harvest window is only a fraction of the year, it doesn’t make sense to employ a permanent labor force this large. So seasonal workers are usually used to pick large amounts of coffee in a short period of time.

Ripe coffee cherries in a tree at a farm in El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

How Power Imbalance Was Created in Coffee Picking

Historically, different coffee-producing regions have handled the challenge of harvest labor in different ways. But most coffee-producing countries share a colonial history that provided the workforce that was key to the success of the coffee industry.

In Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast describes how in Brazil, slave labor on coffee plantations eventually gave way to immigrant labor, with only a modest improvement for the workers. He notes that, for many farm owners, it was cheaper to hire armed guards to maintain order than to provide decent pay and conditions.

Black slaves on a Brazilian coffee farm, c. 1885

In his book States and Social Evolution, Robert G. Williams details how El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras share a similar Spanish colonial history, climate, and terrain, but each arrived at a different solution for its coffee labor needs.

Williams traces the prevalence of large, small, and communal farms in each country to Spanish colonial policies, themselves informed by trade routes, indigenous relations, and other factors.

As coffee production increased in the region, Williams writes that “where large capitalist farms became the dominant form, expropriation of peasant lands helped solve the labor supply problem. Those who lost land became a potential workforce for the plantations.” By expropriating lands, landowners expanded their farms and created a mass of people dependant on wage labor to meet their needs.

In response to resistance to this forced removal and reliance on wage labor, each country erected a legal structure (enforcing debt contracts, passing vagrancy laws, and forcibly conscripting people). Many governments didn’t shy away from violent, coercive measures to force workers into submission.

Ripe coffee cherries. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

In countries where small family farms became the norm, labor relations tended to be much less hostile. According to Williams, instead of legal and extralegal coercion, in Costa Rica “a network of labor exchanges developed between neighbors and relatives who would promise to work on each others’ farms during the harvest.” Furthermore, “because of higher wages and a more equitable distribution of coffee lands… less of a social stigma was attached to harvest labor.”

The case of Central America demonstrates that, while the labor requirements of coffee may be determined by natural factors, how they are fulfilled is determined by tradition and politics.

A laborer picks ripe coffee cherries. Credit: Perfect Daily Grind

How Coffee Prices Create Unstable Working Conditions

Coffee picking is based on a fundamental contradiction for pickers. Carefully picking cherries at optimal ripeness is vital for producing high-quality lots. However, pickers tend to be paid by the volume or weight of coffee they harvest on a given day.

Coffee pickers are often migrant workers within their own countries or neighboring ones, following coffee harvests or jumping from coffee to other crops. They almost never have access to credit, healthcare, or insurance to guard against uncertainty. Workers and their families usually don’t have access to education and healthcare. And their total income is dependent on the success of a harvest. The system has evolved to ensure an adequate supply of labor, not to supply the labor with adequate remuneration.

Therefore, pickers are incentivized to pick as much coffee as they can, perhaps sneaking in over- and under-ripe cherries to increase the weight or volume of the cherry they’ll be paid for today.

Pickers tend to know what a perfectly ripe cherry looks like. Working in the fields for hundreds of hours means they’re likely the best informed people to know what a good cherry is. When they pick suboptimal cherries, it is not from ignorance or carelessness. Rather, it is a rational economic response to their precarious situation. Producers can avoid this by providing bonuses for quality of picking, rather than paying just for quantity.

Coffee pickers take a break in the fields. Credit: Ben Weiner

Because many pickers are migrant workers without guaranteed work or other security, they’re often the first to feel the effects of low coffee prices. When farmers receive low prices, they are unable to pay pickers a living income, forcing them to move to cities to look for work. In turn, vulnerable urban populations experience even more pressure from the influx of rural laborers and may move north in hope of better opportunities. 

The issue of immigration from Central America to Mexico and the US has made headlines in recent years, and it’s not difficult to connect the dots between these waves of migrants and recent low coffee prices. The exodus of migrants from Central America includes many people either directly or indirectly affected by volatile coffee prices.

Ripe cherries on a tree at a farm in El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

How Can Conditions For Pickers Be Improved?

Harvest labor is generally accepted to be one of the highest costs for coffee farmers, estimated to be around one third of annual costs for farmers in Latin America. With the pressure on pickers to deliver a high volume of cherry, it’s vital that there is mutual trust and respect between the producer and pickers. Some pickers may be tempted to add unripe cherry to their sacks, but in turn, some producers provide less-than-ideal working conditions because of their own low profit margins.

Robert Patrick Murray is a producer at Finca Majahual, in El Salvador. He tells me that “by setting common goals and objectives with our collaborators we have developed a joint strategy… The farm will ensure above-standard working conditions in a community-driven operation as long as our collaborators are proactive, positive members of the Majahual community, which enables the operation to produce high-quality products sold at a premium to generate enough value and margin which therefore can be reinvested in the operation so the farm can ensure above-standard working conditions, etc.”

Bags of coffee cherries at a farm in El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

Robert tells me that pickers at Finca Majahual are made up of both local people and migrant workers.

“Most permanent collaborators live close by or on site at the farm,” he says. “Those who still live on site adhere to a traditional model where living arrangements are provided for and taken care of (in addition to the wage they earn). This model used to be very common at most socially responsible farms in the past. They not only provided living quarters but also met the educational, nutritional, and health needs of those who lived on site. 

“Nowadays, mostly because of the cost, this model is very rare. At Finca Majahual we are fortunate enough to still be able to host an established group of workers and their families… [We provide] food through a nutritional program, health through an on-site clinic, and education to their kids at an on-site school. 

“We are able to do this because we believe in developing people to their maximum potential, and because have found creative ways to build it into our operational/administrative business model. As far as our operation remains sustainable through direct trade relationships with our partners, we will continue to make sure we can positively influence and inspire our collaborators to be and do their best.”

A truck loaded with bags of coffee cherries at a farm in El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

As on most farms, harvest pickers have less security. Robert says, “Seasonal collaborators work at the farm during harvest season. They are usually recurring collaborators who come to the farm during harvest season and have the option of room and board (based on availability) depending on their place of origin. Around half of the collaborators opt to stay at the farm to reduce daily transportation expenses.”

But he says that good working conditions are important across the board, saying that “we are firm believers in the fact that if our human resources are doing well, are healthy, have income security, and are motivated based on merit-driven incentives, our operation and its resulting production will be optimal. We’ve come to understand that we must engage our challenges in collaboration with most of our stakeholders in order to find viable, shared value solutions.”

Bags of ripe coffee cherries at a farm in El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

Lupe Rogel is a producer at Finca Perla Negra in Ecuador. Perla Negra is situated outside of Quito and is among many small family farms, so the harvest labor here is more community-oriented, with local families providing labor to each other.

Lupe says that labor is paid by the day. She says, “in fact in this part of the country, the pay is the best. We’re talking about $17 dollars daily.” Pickers at Perla Negra must turn in “120 pounds of cherry, red and bright” each day.

She tells me that “we provide food for the pickers for their health, so that they don’t have to eat cold food,” and that the farm doesn’t harvest on rainy days.

Lupe says that it is important to “always speak clearly about expectations” and that in turn, pickers are paid quite well for their efforts,

Two coffee pickers at a farm in Honduras. Credit: Perfect Daily Grind

Involving The Entire Supply Chain

Coffee pickers have some of the most unforgiving, overlooked jobs in the coffee supply chain, yet their work can make or break an entire harvest. But in the context of low coffee prices, it can be unfair to demand that farmers provide better working conditions for their workers while the price of low doesn’t cover the costs of production.

Ben Weiner is the founder of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers. He says that farms need to be transparent and let coffee roasters visit often and openly. “Transparency leads to important discussions about working conditions and brings about an incentive for farmers to ensure their workers are treated well,” he says.

When roasters understand the needs of pickers and the pressures that farmers face to fulfill these needs in the face of ever-shrinking margins, more actors in the supply chain can work together toward solutions. 

Ben says, “These kinds of international collaborations often lead to positive working conditions on farms, and roasters should demand great working conditions on farms of all of their suppliers, whether they by a third-wave coffee shop or an international chain with thousands of stores.”

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