Good to the last drop – concerns for child labor

I just finished reading an extensive but very accessible article on forced child labor used in the production of chocolate and coffee. “Quite simply, much of the coffee and chocolate improving our health is simultaneously jeopardizing the freedom and lives of hundreds of thousands around the world including many children.”

“Participants in the chocolate industry can no longer honestly deny or plead ignorance to the prevalence of child labor and trafficked, slave child labor in its supply line. A U.S. government-backed study by Tulane University concluded, in March 2011, that more than 1.8 million children in West Africa continue to be involved in cultivating cocoa…”

By far, those of us in the US who buy products with a concern for those who produced them are in the minority. We are, by and large, trained to be consumers who are concerned with two things: getting what we want at the absolute cheapest price possible. Still, even though this is our mindset, most US consumers are good and decent people who would not purchase a product that we knew with certainty was produced using slave child labor. This is one very important reason that I am a severe critic of capitalism. Our brand of capitalism is so concerned with giving business a “free” market that it provides no accountability for businesses or consumers. The market might be free, but the children who surrender their childhood and bodies to work in the fields are not.

Here are more excerpts from the article:

“71 countries make 130 goods that are produced with child labor or forced labor. Agricultural crops most prominently utilize child labor. Both coffee and sugarcane are among a short list of common agricultural goods produced by children….

“Even when coffee is not produced with child labor or slave labor, it is generally cultivated with exploited labor. Most of the world’s 25 million coffee growers receive less than one-percent of what most consumers pay for their daily cappuccino and only about 6-percent of the price paid for coffee in the supermarket…

“According to Global Exchange, workers on coffee plantations are generally paid between $2 and 3 dollars a day. Guatemalan plantation workers must pick 100 pounds of coffee in order to get the minimum wage of just under $3 a day. Workers are often forced to bring their children to ensure they meet their quota. Meanwhile small family farmers earn between $500 and $1,000 a year. Family farmers’ low earnings are typically a result of their being forced to sell their product to middlemen at sometimes half the market value…

But there is good news and something we can do:

“When foods are certified fair-trade it means workers are paid fair wages, free from abusive, exploitative labor practices, work in healthy and safe conditions, and use environmentally sustainable methods… However, the demand for fair-trade products is still too low for such farmers to sell their entire crop at fair-trade prices. By buying fair-trade chocolate we increase the demand for products free of abusive child labor and slavery….

“Buying fair-trade products is not “donating” to a cause, it is merely doing the decent thing: paying people a reasonable sum for the work that they are doing for you….

“At the end of 2011 a rift emerged between fair-trade organizations. The main American fair-trade organization, Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA), announced that it would lower its standards allowing corporate coffee and chocolate companies product grown on estates and plantations to be eligible for certification. In the past only cooperatives could receive the seal.[17] In response, Fairtrade International (FLO), an organization comprised of 25 groups responsible for setting international Fairtrade standards and supporting Fairtrade producers, objected to these proposed changes. FLO states that the decision to allow coffee grown by corporate giants conflicts with salient principles of the fair-trade movement….

“For some, ordering online may well be the best option. Organizations such as Global Exchange and Equal Exchange are leaders in the fair-trade movement, and they offer a wide assortment of products.”


Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

7 thoughts on “Good to the last drop – concerns for child labor”

  1. I researched the fair trade coffee issue a few months ago and according to the online sources I found the certification meant nothing other than a marketing gimmick. As I recall I even put some of the links on your blog, Erdman. So now I don’t know what to think.


  2. Damn wordpress for not being able to search comments by key words. I can’t find your comments, but I do recall that discussion, and I was thinking about it as I posted this article. What I recall, however, was not that fair trade orgs are gimmicks but that there weren’t enough people participating to make a difference…but maybe my memory is off….I also remember you saying that fair trade products were overpriced proportional to the amount of money that farmers received.In other words, the farmers might get more, but a consumer had to then pay above and beyond that with the middle man (retailer or wholesaler) getting that extra profit.

    I’d like to revisit that discussion. The question, I suppose, has to do with whether we have any legitimate positive avenue to purchase things like coffee.


  3. What I’d read elsewhere, and linked here, was that no requirements are imposed on the seller in order to obtain the “fair trade” seal of approval. Toward the end of the article you link in this post there’s a discussion of two different fair trade seals, representing two different levels of commitment to worker rights, which add to the purchaser’s confusion. It was my own beef that the seal of approval also seems to raise the sticker price on the product far beyond the few extra cents per pound that might (or might not) wind up in the hands of the growers.


  4. I spent a bit of time surfing the websites of the two organizations listed above. Unfortunately, there is no simplified data summary that would allow a consumer to verify that their purchase of a chocolate bar will guarantee that x amount of dollars or cents will wind up in the pocket of the farmer. What I gather is that this data is incredibly complex. I think it is available, and both the FLO and Fair Trade USA seem to have a good deal of transparency. I’m guessing that given enough time to research (and possibly correspond), a person could get the hard data they are looking for. In my opinion though it should be much easier.

    I did have a few thoughts on why fair trade products might be much higher, beyond the extra income paid to the farmer. First, and perhaps most obvious to me is that higher reporting standard and more audits certainly result in higher expenses. One thing I did note about the data I viewed on the two sites is that the standards were comprehensive, dealing with the conditions of the workers down to the sustainability of the farming methods. Somebody has to do the compliance work to ensure that standards are met. Having performed audits and compliance work myself, I can sympathize with the costs of quality compliance work. This would certainly add significantly to the final consumer price that you and I pay, though none of this money would go into the pocket of the farmer.

    From Fair Trade USA:
    “To earn a license from Fair Trade USA to use the Fair Trade Certified™ label on their products, companies must buy from certified farms and organizations, pay Fair Trade prices and premiums and submit to a rigorous supply chain audits. This process entails a high level of transparency and traceability in their global supply chains. Today, our partner companies range from small, mission-driven coffee roasters to some of the largest transnational corporations in the world.”

    Another thought is that fair trade is still a new market and still a niche market. These two facts almost certainly mean higher costs all the way down the production and distribution chain. There’s no so called “economies of scale” nor is there economic muscle to force vendors to charge lower, discounted rates. Think the opposite of Walmart and the big box stores. One such cost that comes to mind is shipping. Certainly with fewer goods in each shipment (due to a smaller niche market of consumers) fair trade orgs pay top shipping dollar.


    1. I was at an upscale coffee joint today, and I asked the barista if the coffee was fair trade. He said, “Well you know how it is.” I asked him to expand this thought a bit. He did, and the gist of it was that it is sometimes too expensive for small, individual farmers to get fair trade certified unless they are part of a larger co-op.

      Maybe I will go back and chat more with him, but I was under the impression that the cost of certification was born by the consumer. The barista also said that it was all rather complicated, and on this we can all agree. Of course, I think that this is part of the strategy – intentional or not – of big business: fragment the consumer from the supply chain. With the working classes fragmented from exploitation happening around the world, they can economically support exploitation without being aware of it.


Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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