Where is coffee produced with forced labor?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2012) coffee is produced with forced labor in Côte D’Ivoire (CDI) and with child labor in Colombia, CDI, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Guinea, Honduras, El Salvador, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda. Other reports have found forced labor throughout Latin America, particularly in those countries that the Department of Labor has identified as using child labor. 

What does forced labor in coffee harvesting look like?

Few large-scale studies have been carried out on forced labor in the coffee sector; however, anecdotal reports confirm its existence. For example, the U.S. Department of State (2010) acknowledged the existence of forced labor on coffee plantations in Guatemala. Reports cited by the U.S. Department of Labor (e.g. Anti-Slavery International 2004) imply that similar conditions may exist in the Ivorian coffee sector. As few farmers rely solely on cocoa, it is likely that children and adults working on these farms also work in the production of other commodities including coffee.

Coffee Production and Supply Chain

After coffee is harvested, the seeds are dried either by the sun or, on more mechanized plantations, by machine. Beans are then hulled, sorted, and graded for quality before being roasted. Forced labor may occur at all stages but is most likely to occur in harvesting.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (2004), coffee is the second most traded commodity world-wide after oil.

The largest coffee producing countries, in descending order, are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Honduras. The largest importers of coffee are Europe, the U.S., and Japan (UNCTAD 2004). “In the past decade, the proportion of value added to coffee in the industrialized world has increased significantly. The share of producing countries’ earnings in the retail market decreased drastically by the early 2000s, to between 6% and 8% of the value of a coffee packet sold in a supermarket” (UNCTAD 2004).


Case Study

Coffee and Fair Trade:

Fair Trade coffee has risen in popularity as a means of combating the wide variety of exploitative labor conditions in coffee harvesting. In 2000, the U.S. imported around 4.3 million pounds of Fair Trade Certified coffee.  Ten years later the amount increased to almost 109 million pounds. One of the root causes of forced and child labor in coffee is the low prices and lack of price stability for farmers. Farmers who participate in the Fair Trade program receive, as of 2012, a $0.20/lb premium on Fair Trade Coffee (Fair Trade USA). In return for this premium price, Fair Trade cooperatives adhere to a number of labor standards, including the prohibition of forced and child labor.

How does forced labor in coffee affect me?

Coffee is one of the most commonly consumed beverages in the world.

Research on Indicators of Forced Labor in the Supply Chain of Coffee in Guatemala

Verité conducted research in the coffee industry in Guatemala and found indicators of forced labor at coffee fincas for migrant workers, voluntaries (workers who live near the fincas) and colonos (workers who live at the fincas year round).  Researchers found that many workers are subject to physical confinement and abuse at the workplace. Although the workers are free to enter and leave the fincas, there are some restrictions on movement during working hours and guards are present. Workers are subject to threats and verbal abuse and many are fearful of their employers. Researchers also found indicators of induced indebtedness including the use of labor brokers, the confiscation of identification documents and the absence of written contracts. According to the Labor Code, manual workers must be paid every fifteen days. However, in the Guatemalan coffee sector, workers are usually paid every month or at the end of harvest, which encourages the workers to stay at the fincas until the harvest season is over. Some workers are threatened with a loss of employment, food or future employment if they try to leave the fincas before the end of harvest season or if they fail to harvest enough coffee. Workers are subject to hazardous working conditions, including the use of pesticides, without consistent medical care. Almost all of the fincas researched by Verité employed child laborers, some as young as five years old. Children working in the coffee industry are forced to interrupt their education and are subject to dangerous working conditions (Verité).



Where can I learn more?

Read a summary of the global coffee trade.

Read Verité’s full report on forced labor indicators in Guatemala’s Coffee industry


Works Cited:

Anti-Slavery International. The Cocoa Industry in West Africa, a History of Exploitation. 2004.

Downie, Andrew. “Fair trade in Bloom”. New York Times. October 2, 2007.

Fair Trade USA. “Coffee”.

International Coffee Organization. “Roasting/Making Coffee.”

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Commodities Atlas: Coffee. 2004.

U.S. Department of Labor.  2012 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. 2012  

U.S. Department of Labor.  2010 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. December 2010.  

U.S. Department of State. 2009 Human Rights Report: Guatemala. March 2010

Verité. Research on Indicators of Forced Labor in the Supply Chain of Coffee in Guatemala.