Is Your Coffee Made with Child or Forced Labor?

By Bailey Chenevert

Be careful when cozying up with a gingerbread spice latte this winter. No matter where you buy it, your morning cup of joe may have financed child labor overseas without you knowing. 

Coffee beans are among the least ethically-produced goods in the world ‒ and the U.S. imports more of it than anywhere else. Reports of forced labor, child labor, and environmental degradation penetrate nearly every corner of the world’s coffee production. 

In September, the U.S. Department of Labor released a list of goods produced by child or forced labor. Many of the report’s 104 pages detail the widespread exploitation of coffee farmers. The title gives it away, but the degree to which the world’s coffee supply runs on slave or forced labor can still be shocking. Coffee workers often come from marginalized populations and are subject to hazardous working conditions and low wages. As many as 17 countries were featured on the report for using child labor to produce coffee. These countries include the world’s largest coffee exporters, Brazil, Columbia and Vietnam.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) defined forced labor as “all work or service that is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the worker does not offer him or herself voluntarily.” Forced labor applies to all instances of child labor, because children under the minimum age for work can’t consent to working voluntarily. ILO also defines child labor as “work below the minimum age for work” and excludes children that work safely, protected by regulations enforced by the Fair Labor Standards Act

In 2019, popular coffee brands Starbucks and Nespresso were caught buying coffee from some of these farms that use forced and child labor. Later, an investigation revealed some of the harsh practices of their suppliers. Dispatches filmed children under 13 years old (some as young as eight) working 40-hour weeks of grueling labor, usually making less than $6.50 a day. They saw child labor at seven farms linked to Nespresso and five linked to Starbucks. Well-known brands McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts have also bought coffee from Brazilian coffee farms that used forced labor. 

How did coffee workers become one of the populations most exploited by forced labor? Dispatches reported that coffee farmers receive less than 1% of the revenue from every cup of coffee, and that money has to be divided among coffee pickers. Because wages are so low, many farmers have to take their children out of school to pick coffee and afford their living expenses. 

When companies receive media attention for purchasing goods produced by forced labor, they sometimes release statements condemning the unethical practice and promise to source more ethically-made products. After Nespresso’s 2019 scandal, their chief executive officer said child labor is “unacceptable” and promised to investigate the farms they purchase from. The solution may not be as simple as these public statements imply. Instead of investigations and search parties for new farms, the solution likely includes giving a larger portion of profits to the farmers, which may mean charging more for a cup. Oftentimes, big coffee companies will rather find cheap labor at a different farm. 

Still, there are efforts to protect coffee farmers in the works. The Cooperation On Fair, Free, Equitable Employment (COFFEE) Project has been in effect since 2017. It aims to prevent forced labor and child labor in key coffee-producing countries, specifically Brazil, Mexico and Columbia. The annual List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor also helps shed light on the issue, although the report doesn’t release the names of brands that purchase goods on the list. That means a lot of the grunt work of finding ethical coffee is up to consumers. 

One tip is that it’s usually a good idea to avoid buying very well-known coffee brands, like the ones mentioned earlier. Try to buy local brands, which often have close relationships with the farmers they buy from. Although they might charge more than Folger’s does, those extra cents add up to a more livable wage for coffee workers. 

Among those more expensive and localized brands, there are certifications and buzzwords to look out for when shopping different brands. Some labels look great on the packaging, but don’t necessarily enforce standards of ethical production. These include direct tradeshade grownorganic and fair trade labels. Fairly traded, shade grown and organic coffee are great products to buy, but sometimes brands receive these labels without meeting the standards that the label implies, or keep the label for a long time without evidence of enduring those standards. So, although it doesn’t hurt to buy coffee with these on them, you can’t always be sure the label is accurate. 

Look out for labels that do hold their brands to high standards. Those are the ones with the full terms Fair Trade CertifiedRainforest Alliance Certified and Bird-Friendly Certified. And, of course, when in doubt, a call to the company can help clear up a lot of uncertainties. 

So, if you’re one of the 53% of American coffee lovers that prefer environmentally friendly coffee that supports farmers, remember to pay attention to the labels and that this is one industry where more expensive actually means better. 

Bailey Chenevert is a freelance journalist and guest editorial contributor for Cluey Consumer. As a recent 2020 college graduate from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Bailey supplemented her studies as both a research assistant and a student editor at La Louisiane. Bailey is passionate about impartial reporting on consumerism and the impacts that fashion brands have on our modern world. 

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