coffee-twoDuring the harvest season, the cuadrillas pick the coffee fruit. Coffee is in its fruit form when it comes off the plant as a dark, red berry; this fruit is then processed into green, and later, roast coffee. Edgar told me that the cuadrillas were paid by production, which is allowed under CAFE standards, provided that the wage is equivalent to the minimum daily wage. If there was a lot of coffee to be picked, they were paid 50 centavos per pound. A good coffee picker, in a good harvest, can pick 100 pounds of coffee a day, so a seasonal worker can earn Q50 a day – nearly the minimum wage – provided they were always well and able to pick. But that is where the relatively good news ends. The cuadrillas at this plantation were not allowed access to the school the owner provided for the children of full-time employees. Edgar thought that the contractor might recruit people under 14 years of age to work, and while the plantation did provide the cuadrillas with housing it will be left to the reader to determine if they would consider it habitable. The photo on this page was taken by an associate who visited the cuadrillas’ living quarters on this plantation three years ago. I do not know, and was not able to determine, if the housing situation had changed.

I recently spoke to a coffee farmer from Huehuetenango who spent time at this same plantation around the time the photo was taken. He said the plantation provided the cuadrillas with rooms about one hundred square meters in size. The rooms were unfurnished and the plantation provided neither bedding nor linen. The cuadrillas had to build their own beds or sleep on the floor. About 50 people slept and ate in each room. The plantation did not provide the children of cuadrillas with a school and people of all ages worked. At the time the farmer visited, the plantation was paying between 40 and 45 centavos per pound for coffee fruit picking.

I sought out the cuadrilla contractor at this plantation to see if the situation had changed since the Huehuetenango farmer’s visit, but had no luck. Instead, I spoke to two other farmers in Luis’ cooperative, whom we will call Mario and Humberto, about the current working conditions for cuadrillas in Antigua Valley plantations. They said that, this season, contractors were bringing in groups of people to work for 15 days at a time and they were hiring children. According to Mario and Humberto, these cuadrillas never received more than 25 centavos per pound of coffee fruit. They claimed that this happened because the plantations paid the contractor and it was left to the contractor’s discretion how much went to the cuadrillas. To Mario and Humberto’s knowledge, no plantations in the area were providing schooling for the children of seasonal laborers. Further, they told me that the kind of housing evidenced by the photograph was standard for migrant laborers.

Let us assume that the plantation I visited, the one that supplies Starbucks, is not like the reports I received from Mario and Humberto about its neighbors. Let us assume that the plantation paid the cuadrillas 50 centavos per pound and that their living conditions were much improved from when the Huehuetenango farmer visited. Let us further assume that the plantation provided the children of the seasonal workers with access to public education. Let us assume that, although not required to by CAFE standards because the plantation works through a contractor, no children were employed in the harvest.

But, even with all those assumptions, questions remain. Does CAFE certification guarantee truly “ethical trading?” Are employees of CAFE-certified producers any better-off than those of non-certified producers? Does payment of the national legal minimum wage for agricultural workers in Guatemala provide for what a Starbucks employee, customer, or Chief Executive Officer would consider to be “the needs of all the participants in the supply chain”? Trade certifications are business-to-business agreements; therefore CAFE certified plantation owners and Starbucks could agree to wages and working conditions that are truly designed to facilitate sustainable development. Though, certainly, that would affect the bottom line.

As for whether the current coffee trade certifications are “ethical” and “sustainable,” consider the economics of living on minimum wage – Q52 a day. In January of 2009, the cost of the daily basic food basket in Guatemala was Q66.30 ( This conceptual basket consists of corn, beans, milk and 23 other items purchased in quantities to feed a family of five. Minimum wage doesn’t even meet the family’s food needs, let alone other expenses such as medicine, housing, transportation, and school costs. Such low wages demand that multiple members of the family work to provide basic necessities, thereby affecting family structure and requiring children to join the labor force, leaving behind what limited schooling they might otherwise receive

Thus, over a cup of coffee, the cycle of poverty continues. Clearly, for a Guatemalan agricultural worker, minimum wage is not anything that might be considered, by fair-minded observers, a “living wage.”

By comparison, neither Mario nor Luis, for reasons outlined earlier, hold any sort of trade certification. Yet, when buying coffee fruit from other farmers, Mario, Luis and all of the other members of their cooperative pay at least Q10 more per 100-pound sack than the market value set by the large plantations. This “sharing the wealth” mentality is also demonstrated in the wages these farmers pay their seasonal workers. Luis employs six seasonal workers, one of whom, Carlos, I was able to interview. Carlos told me that Luis offers a flexible pay arrangement. Carlos could choose to be paid by the day or by the task, and as he is a strong, young man, he often elects to be paid by the task – earning up to Q225 a day. Clearly, Carlos is the exception, but the fact that an employee of an uncertified, one and a half hectare farm can earn the same as, or more than, an employee of a CAFE-certified plantation more than two hundred times the size, doesn’t earn Starbucks a gold star for its trading practices.

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About the Author

Laura Shearer comes to us from Melbourne, Australia. After studying Psychology at university, then deciding she didn't want to be a psychologist, she set off on the Aussie rite of passage: a year backpacking in Europe. She returned to Australia a more worldly woman and embarked on a master's degree in communications and a career in corporate Australia. Four years later, she decided she wanted to do something more meaningful than make rich people richer, so she traveled Guatemala with the intention of spending a few months helping to spread the wealth around a bit more. That was in 2006, and she's still here. Laura has spent much of her time in Guatemala working for non-profits and of late, has been the crack reporter for La Cuadra.