How It’s Made: Child Labor, Bonded Labor Brewing Your Cup of Coffee

October 12, 2015 Cazzie Reyes Photos 
Bonded Labor, Child Labor

If you spend $3.00 at a coffee shop every work day, you’d be paying over $700.00 a year for coffee alone. That might be a steep price to pay for your daily dose of caffeine, but is it worth it? More importantly, does the price accurately reflect the work and energy required to get you your morning cup of Joe? This month’s How It’s Made post explores child and bonded labor in the coffee supply chain and offers direct and fair trade alternatives.

Over 25 million farmers and farm workers are involved in coffee production around the world. Working long hours with prolonged exposure to the sun and pesticides, these workers typically only receive 1-10% of the coffee retail price. When coffee prices take a dip, farm workers still have to meet daily quotas and will often bring their children with them to help. For example, Guatemalan workers must harvest 100 pounds’ worth of coffee in order to receive the minimum wage: $3.00 a day. Workers, out of economic need, will willingly endure these poor working conditions. However, there are child laborers and bonded laborers who don’t want to work in these fields that are enslaved and compelled to stay under the threat of force or coercion.

Child labor

Children brought by their parents to coffee plantations are technically not employed by the owner, so they do not receive any labor protections. These kids are taken out of school, and they toil in the fields for up to 10 hours a day. Injuries may result from extended heat exposure, poisonous agrochemicals, heavy lifting and other sharp tools involved in the coffee processing procedure.

Unprocessed coffee beans are planted in shaded nurseries and frequently watered. After three to four years, those beans (seeds) will have grown into fruit-bearing plants. The fruit, called a coffee cherry, is either strip or selectively picked. If strip picked, all of the cherries are taken off the branches. Selective picking is more labor intensive since workers have to choose the red, ripe cherries from the bunch. Harvests typically only occur once a year, and a single picker will harvest up to 200 pounds of cherries (yielding about 40 pounds of coffee) a day. © End Slavery Now
To prevent spoilage, the cherries are processed. In both the dry and wet method, the beans must be laid out and sun dried. For weeks, the beans must be raked and turned several times each day. © End Slavery Now

Bonded labor

Along with child labor, bonded labor – sometimes called debt peonage – is rampant in coffee-producing farms. Back in 2011, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against eight farms in Hawaii and Washington for forcing hundreds of Thai men to work in their fields between 2003 and 2007.

These men legally entered the U.S. under the federal H2-A visa program and paid brokers about $18,000 to $21,000 in recruitment fees. They were promised a salary of $2,340 to $2,680 a month. Upon arrival, the employers confiscated the workers’ passports and prevented them from leaving. The migrant workers lived in cramped and guarded facilities, were threatened with deportation, were physically assaulted by supervisors and starved as they worked off their debt.

In 2014, four Hawaiian farms involved in the lawsuit agreed to a $2.4 million settlement which included monetary relief as well as work and benefits options. Kauai Coffee Company, Inc. and Captain Cook Coffee Company, Ltd. were two of the farms that settled.

Labor abuses in coffee farms and plantations persist in the United States and abroad. However, growing awareness, legal proceedings and better trade practices have resulted in improvements for workers worldwide.


Once in the milling process, the beans are hulled, polished (optional) and then graded and sorted. © End Slavery Now
After being roasted, the beans are ground. Coarser grounds are usually used to make drip brewed coffee. © End Slavery Now

Direct trade

In direct trade, coffee roasters directly purchase from farmers. There’s no set standard, and there are no certifications. Proponents of this trade like the fact that buyers and producers cut out the middlemen and directly negotiate prices. There are no third party fees, and farmers typically earn a higher premium for their product. Today, some independently owned, local coffee shops choose to buy from direct trade roasters. Ask your favorite coffee shop about where they source their artisan coffee!

Fair trade

From Green Mountain Coffee’s Colombian Fair Trade Select K-Cup to Dunkin’ Donuts’ Fair Trade Certified espresso, fair trade coffee is more accessible than ever. The concept of fair trade is centered on empowerment, transparency and accountability. Different fair trade certifiers and sellers have varying degrees of standards and organizational structures. The best fair trade coffee producers are democratically organized, consistently use third-party auditors and enforce policies that keep their supply free of slave labor. Most importantly, workers and farmers are part of cooperatives that advocate for their rights and concerns. Just Us! And Peace Coffee are a couple of great fair trade brands.

In smaller plantations the roasting, grinding and sifting processes are typically done by hand. © End Slavery Now
© End Slavery Now

Ask Your Workplace

to switch to fair or direct trade coffee

Topics: Bonded Labor, Child Labor

About the Author

Cazzie Reyes

Cazzie Reyes graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.