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Coffee: The Bitter Truth

By S. Allen

Picture this: In a linoleum-floored Woolworths, stands a 15-year-old, picking up the cheapest bag of coffee. 15,569 km away, in a dirt-floored slum, stands a 15-year-old lugging a 60 litre bag of coffee. Between them stands Article 23, 24 and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to just and favourable conditions of work, the right to rest and leisure, the right to education. In the time a child labourer on a coffee plantation in Brazil earns enough for a $4 cup of coffee, they produce enough beans to make 6350.95 cups of coffee.

So is there a deeper, more bitter truth behind your cup of coffee?

Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer, producing a third of the global supply. While full-time work is legal past the age of 16, 4 million children aged 5-17 participate in child labour, two-thirds of these children labouring on family farms. Yet, child labour has been illegal in Brazil since 1988, and the country follows international guidelines for child labour. Children as young as 7 must fill a 60 litre bag of coffee every day, for merely $2 pay, but the alternative to this dismal, cyclical reality is starvation. Often stuck working for the same company for generations, feeling a sense of loyalty to them, the cycle of poverty prevents people from breaking free, leading to 75% of the developed world using non-fair-trade coffee.

Child labour doesn’t just have economic impacts, the stirring reality is that it brings physical and mental suffering. If an Australian child was beaten, mocked, and deprived of clean water and sanitation before 209.3 million people, it would be called an abomination and a breach of human rights. Yet every bean is one more beating, one more child with lasting injuries from carrying heavy baskets daily. When we can’t see the debt bondage, non-existent work contracts, exposure to toxins, lack of protective equipment, accommodation without doors, drinking water, or mattresses, and we only see a bag of beans, we are blinded by corporations, as they let their production processes be subcontracted out to unknown companies, unconfirmed human rights violators. Families are falsely promised a better life as their children are taken from an education, from dignity with the hope to break the cycle of poverty.

If you’ve convinced yourself that big-name companies fuelling your caffeine addiction are exempt, in reality larger companies have more exploitation opportunities, preying on countries with corrupt and weak legislative systems. One such issue is Nestlé, who admits to using coffee beans from slave labour plantations in Brazil, as they do not track the names of suppliers. Despite having child labour guidelines, lack of communication between plant and company leads to unnoticed violations. Many children working for Nestle are trafficked to work for little to no wage, living in landfills, drinking water alongside animals.

Brazilian far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, fuels this exploitation and claims he wouldn’t be the person he is today without labouring since the age of eight. He stated “Work brings dignity to men and women, no matter their age”. Yet his claim - "Look, when a child of eight or nine years old works somewhere, many people denounce it as 'forced labour' or 'child labour’. But if that child smokes coca paste, nobody says anything." This leaves a bitter taste when contrasted to the lack of dignity children live in, his notion that child labour builds a “stronger character” is a minority of reality. In response to Bolsonaro’s vulgar claims and Nestlé’s exploitation, Marcelo Freixo, a socialist politician stated: "He is the best example to incite a child not to work -- to keep him from growing up to become an adult like (Bolsonaro)."

You may wonder how a parent could let their child labour in such conditions, yet child labour brews from deception and necessity, with threats or kidnapping sometimes involved, or parents deceived that their child will receive a liveable wage, better quality of life, an education. But these luxuries belong to a minority, and like child labourers on Nestlé’s plantations, many cases are swept out of sight of consumers. It’s people like Bolsonaro who convince struggling parents that child labour is the only option in extreme poverty. Work is seen as providing education opportunities broader than formal schooling, to develop work ethic, enhance skills for future careers, help the child integrate into society, or is even used to pay for formal schooling. The 1998 Brazilian Household Survey found “almost 18 percent of boys between the ages of 7 and 16 hold at least a part-time job”, yet school attendance remains fairly high, “93 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls between 7 and 16 attend school at least part-time”. Work is considered an honour to the family, a responsibility. But despite promising increase in school attendance, reality is child labour is hardly ever short-term, and often new opportunities that require greater skills are snatched away by companies that demand loyalty.

Child labour on coffee plantations cannot simply be patched with legislation, it’s widespread and fault lies on every level. Many aid programs focus on not abolishing child labour, a sadly integral aspect to Brazilian society, but ensuring children still have education opportunities and safe work conditions. Bolsa Família is a government program, providing monthly payments for required school attendance levels and vaccinations. On a company level, stronger communication is vital, accountability needs to be raised and suppliers tracked. A minimum wage for workers, child and adult, is crucial, to reduce the incentive to hire cheaper child labour. We consumers must acknowledge how our choices impact child labour. We speak with our money; we must buy fair trade coffee or reduce coffee consumption. If our coffee is rooted in evil, it’s time we treated it like a luxury.

While you aren’t obligated to stop buying coffee, you have a responsibility as a human being to uphold the rights of others. There is a responsibility on all levels, for the Brazilian government and the United Nations to further intervene, for companies to track their sources and remain accountable, and for you as a consumer to simply be aware.

Picture this: In a linoleum-floored Woolworths, stands a 15-year-old, picking up a bag of coffee marked ‘fair trade certified’. 15,569 km away, in a concrete-floored high school stands a 15-year-old, finally receiving the education and adequate living standards they had the right to from the start.

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*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Woke magazine.


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