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On the farms, coffee labourers are involved with eery aspect of the growing/harvesting process. They are involved in weeding, spraying, picking and weighing the coffee berries. In so doing, they are at risk of being poisoned by pesticides, bitten by snakes or insects and injured by cutting tools and branches. High level of exposure to sunlight can cause skin cancer. They can also have musclokeletal injuries from repetitive movements, lifting and carrying heavy baskets. All of these issues can be avoided if the workers are given protective gears, such as plastic coats, boots, gloves, and hats. Yet, they are seldom offered such protective gear.
In the factories, they are at risk of being injured from contact with machinery, contracting respiratory diseases due to exposure to coffee dust, and suffering impairment or lost of hearing due to noisy machinery. However, these risks can be easily averted if they are given protective clothing and equipment.
Coffee labourers are also subjected to discrimination and abuse. In Guatemala, COVERCO's survey showed that 18% of coffee workers interviewed reported some form of harassment (physical, verbal or sexual).
A coffee worker's wage is extremely low. In Kenya, coffee workers earn about US$12 per month, while the legal minimum wage is 3 - 4 times that amount. (Tea & Coffee article). The situation is similar in other countries: in Mexico, if lucky, coffee workers are paid a minimum wage of US$2.50 per day. Women are often paid less than men. (Industrial workers of the world)
Coffee workers have a low literacy level. A survey in Guatemala revealed that 45% of all coffee workers are illiterate. When female workers are interviewed about labour rights, 84% indicated that they did not know what "labour rights" meant.
As a result, coffee workers live below the poverty line. Many migrant labourers sleep in temporary shelters, some even sleep under plastic sheets. Many cook, wash and bathe from the same water source. Medical facilities, if any at all, are often inadequate to meet their needs.
Working 10 - 12 hours, a female Guatemalan coffee worker is usually paid $0.87 - $1.30 per day. Meanwhile, the legal maximum working hour per day is 8 and the legal minimum wage is $2.60 per day. Apart from harvesting coffee, the female coffee worker also assumes the duties of housewife, mother and sister. Though they have to work the same hours as men, they earn less than men. They often receive little help from their partners. Women are also victims of sexual abuse in the workplace.
Child labour is a prevalent problem in the coffee industry. In Kenya's central province, 60% of the workforce on coffee plantations are children. (Global March).
Often, they are the children of migrant workers. They may start working when they are tall enough to reach the lower branches and old enough to identify which berries to pick. Children are involved in all aspects of coffee farming and manual processing activities: picking, sorting, pruning, weeding, spraying, fertilizing and transporting. During the planting season and harvesting season in Honduras, children make up 20% and 40% of the labour force respectively (International Labour Organization - ILO). Child labour in the coffee sector in Tanzania is reported as one of the Worst Forms of Child Labour by ILO.
It should be noted that child labour doesn't necessarily harm the child. As long as the work does not interfere with the child's education, health and welfare, then the positive aspects of child labour should be recognized: "children learn as they work, participate in family activities, learn to be productive members of society, and help their families be more viable". (Tea & Coffee article).
However, these children experience the same, poor working and living conditions as the adults. They are even more vulnerable to diseases and musculoskeletal injuries. Their education is affected because of their family's low income level and their consequent need to work to help support the family. In the COVERCO survey of Guatemalan workers, only 15% of the child workers interviewed had completed primary education.
The International Labour Organization (ILO)
The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)
Commission for the Verification of Codes of Conduct (COVERCO)
Organic Consumers Association
Global March Against Child Labour
Industrial Workers of the World
US-LEAP – Coffee Workers Campaigns
Tea and Coffee Trade Online – The Plight of Coffee’s Children