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Children as young as five are being forced to work as labourers in coffee farms in Guatemala, even on farms producing specialty coffee that commands a high price on world markets

Guatemala’s coffee plantations are marked by child labour, threats to union organisers, and signs of forced labour, according to a report by Danwatch, the independent media and research centre that publishes investigative journalism focusing on CSR, human rights, environment and conflict areas in a global perspective.

Danwatch say and investigation it undertook in of Guatemala’s coffee industry reveals “serious problems with illegal child labour and signs of forced labour such as armed guards, workers in a spiral of debt, and confiscation of ID papers. Pricey, high-quality coffee is apparently no guarantee against violations,” said Danwatch.

Guatemala grows some of the world’s best coffee, but some of it is produced under conditions that contravene international conventions and the country’s own laws, according to the results of Danwatch’s latest investigation into conditions among coffee workers.

Danwatch claims its 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.

Danwatch travelled to Guatemala during the coffee harvest in November 2015. It visited coffee plantations and interviewed coffee workers, union officials, experts and local authorities. It says it has photographic documentation that proves that young children are picking coffee on Guatemalan coffee plantations.

Violations of international and domestic legislation

Danwatch also interviewed Guatemalan coffee workers who reported that their children also pick coffee. It compared information it collected from coffee workers, unions and experts with the International Labour Organisation’s indicators of forced labour, and concluded that signs of forced labour are present at coffee plantations in Guatemala. All worker interviews took place far from the plantations where they worked, out of concern for their safety. To protect workers’ identities, the names of interviewees are not disclosed in the report, but they are known to Danwatch.

Unlike Danwatch’s earlier investigations of the coffee industry in Brazil, Danwatch has chosen not to map the supply chain from these plantations to coffee companies in Denmark, Europe and the US, because it feared that the coffee workers we interviewed could be traced if we identified the plantations where they work.

Backing up evidence of child labour in the form of photographic evidence, Danwatch conducted interviews with coffee workers who stated that their own children, some as young as five years old, have worked picking coffee. “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,” said Danwatch, which said the workers it interviewed say they go to bed hungry most nights.

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 a spiral of debt,” said Danwatch. “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,” Danwatch claimed.

Labour rights violated

“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.

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 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,” said Mr 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.”

Many workers interviewed by Danwatch say they go to bed hungry most nights. “It’s quite common to see children of six or seven years old picking coffee,” said Lesbia Amézquita, legal counsel with the labour organisation Movimiento Sindical, Indígena y Campesino Guatemalteco (MSICG), whose mission includes seeking improved conditions for Guatemala’s coffee workers.

In the town of Coatepeque, close to the Pacific Ocean, Danwatch met with 10 coffee workers.

A woman whose five year old child was asleep in her lap described how she had also worked on coffee plantations, since she was eight years old. “I would rather have gone to school, but I had to do it,” she said. Today, her own children work side by side with her on another plantation. She said the five-year-old girl collects fallen coffee cherries from the ground, Two other children – a girl aged 11 and a boy aged 9 – also help with the work. “If the children help, we can pick more coffee and earn just a bit more,” she said.

Workers earn far less than minimum wage

Coffee workers in Guatemala are typically paid a piece rate for the amount of coffee that they pick. With the help of her three children, the woman can harvest enough coffee to earn about Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ) 30-40 per day (about US$4-5). This is significantly below Guatemala’s minimum wage for a single worker, which in 2015 was GTQ 78.72 (US$10.30) per day. According to labour organisations and other experts, it is common for coffee workers to earn far less than Guatemala’s minimum wage. “I don’t earn enough to buy sufficient food for my children,” said the woman.

Other mothers who also take their children to work with them on the coffee plantations, say the same. One woman told Danwatch that her two sons, aged 10 and 14, work alongside her on a plantation. Together they pick enough coffee each month to earn about GTQ 500 (US$66). According to INE, the national statistical institute, in November 2015, an average Guatemalan family with about five members needed to earn GTQ 3540.60 (US$464) per month in order to afford the most basic foodstuffs – seven times as much as the woman and her two sons are able to earn. In order to afford clothing, gas, transport and other necessities, a family of five needed to earn GTQ 6,460.95 (US$847)  – that’s nearly 13 times as much as this family.

Another woman said she takes her four children, aged 13, 10, nine and seven, to work on the coffee plantation. Even though the five of them work all day long she can only afford to buy vegetables every two weeks, and meat once a month. When they do have meat, she buys beef bones, which do not have much meat on them. “Both my children and myself go to bed hungry almost every night. The hunger begins in the afternoon, but there is nothing to eat,” she said. Sometimes, when the family runs out of food altogether, they pick wild herbs, she explained.

Migrant workers have it even worse

The coffee workers from Coatepeque live in their own homes and travel each day to work on the coffee plantations. Even though they are paid far below the minimum wage and must put their children to work in order to feed them, another group of coffee workers endure even more difficult circumstances: internal migrant workers, who live and are housed with their families on plantations far from home for the duration of the coffee harvest.

In Huehuetenango, in western Guatemala, Danwatch met a group of workers who have migrated to the coffee plantations to pick coffee during the harvest. All these workers are of Mayan descent and speak Mam. One man explained how coffee workers are housed in a large concrete building called a ‘galera’ (galley), which has a floor and a roof, but no outer walls. The workers sleep on the concrete floor. “You take a piece of plastic and lay down on the floor,” he said.

Children die on plantations

Around 50-100 families often live together in a galera, explained José Chic, a member of the labour union Comité Campesino del Altiplano. “They sleep like sardines in a can, pressed up against each other.” He described how there is usually no electricity in the workers’ living quarters, and there are often no toilet facilities either, so workers have to go into the bushes.

“There are significant hygiene problems,” he said. Even though the children work alongside their parents, there are no food rations for them. “They don’t give food to the children, only to the parents. Sometimes the parents get 3-5 corn tortillas that they have to share with their kids,” said one woman. If a child falls ill there is no way to see a doctor or get medicine.

“None of us would work on the coffee plantations if we could avoid it,” she says. “It brings much suffering. Sometimes children get sick and die, and they are buried on the plantations.”

Because of armed attacks, murder, and a lack of due process, Guatemala is among the 10 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,” it claimed. “In part because the workers are not unionised, they lack written contracts, and frequently receive no formal pay slips.”

Their accounts are consistent with an investigation undertaken by the American NGO Verité in 2011, in which 87 per cent of 372 coffee workers interviewed stated that children under the age of 14 worked at the last coffee plantation at which they were employed. Twenty-two percent of workers stated that children aged 5-8 years worked on the coffee plantations, while 12 per cent reported seeing very young children, under the age of five, at work.

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 specialty coffee – of a type that would normally attract a price premium for the owner of the farm – 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 awards 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 said 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,” it said.

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 said. 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.” ■ C&CI


Violations of international conventions

The UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child: according to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 32, children have the right ‘to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” Guatemala has ratified the convention.

The ILO’s conventions on child labour: the ILO’s conventions 138 and 182 regarding child labour state that, as a rule, children should not work until they are over the mandatory school age. They also make it clear that children may not do work that can harm their health or development. Guatemala has ratified both conventions.

The ILO’s conventions on forced labour: the ILO’s conventions 29 and 105 forbid forced and mandatory labour, and require states that have ratified the conventions to abolish forced labour. Guatemala has ratified both conventions.

The ILO’s conventions on the freedom to organise and unionise: the ILO’s conventions 87 and 98 protect the freedom to unionise, including both the right to organise and the right to collective bargaining. Guatemala has ratified both conventions

Violations of Guatemalan law

The rights of employees in Guatemala are protected in its constitution, its labour laws, as well as in other laws and regulations. Danwatch’s investigation shows that Guatemala’s own laws regarding child labour, wage payments, and minimum wage are being broken on coffee plantations.

On average, 10.7 per cent of Guatemalan children between the ages of 7 and 14 are at work. In rural areas, this percentage is even higher: 15.3 per cent, according to data from INE, Guatemala’s national statistical agency. ■ C&CI


This article has been published in the November 2016 issue of C&CI, click on subscribe now if you wish to read other informative articles in the November and future issues of C&CI. 

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