By Manus Lenihan
A boy of ten or twelve carries a sack of coffee beans bigger than his torso up a steep hill. He stops to rub his back, grimacing in pain, then picks up the sack again and carries on. This is the true face of Starbucks and Nespresso, behind the mask of “ethical” corporate branding: children working for 40 hours a week, for about £5 per day.
This week Channel 4’s Dispatches exposed widespread child labour in farms that supply Starbucks and Nespresso. A film crew made undercover visits to seven coffee plantations in Guatemala. At all seven they found children, many aged 10-12 and some as young as eight, toiling in extreme heat, carrying heavy baskets and bags up steep slopes. All seven farms are certified suppliers of coffee beans to Starbucks and Nespresso, with the logos of these two companies prominently stencilled on the walls of the facilities.
Wilful ignorance by greedy corporations
Out of basic human and class solidarity, many coffee-drinkers are willing to pay more for a cup that is not tainted with the sweat and tears of children. But this scandal proves, hands down, that it’s cheaper to invest a few quid in “ethical” marketing, branding and PR than it is to respect child labour laws.
Lesbia Amézquita, a Guatemalan labour lawyer, explains that the coffee farms get advance warning of the very rare visits by inspectors, and that there is no input from workers or trade unions in the sham certification process. In fact, while the film crew was encountering girls aged 10-14 filling baskets with coffee beans, the farm in question was under inspection that very day! Two weeks later the farm received its certification.
Capitalism has left a majority of Guatemala’s people in poverty. Parents working 15-16 hours per day can’t make ends meet, so the children are sent out to work. They miss out on an education and get chronic injuries, all to earn, per day, little over the price of a large mocha in Starbucks in Ireland.
An unjust and exploitative system
These companies boast of having “zero tolerance” for child labour. Obviously this is a lie, but even if they did, the bigger picture would remain unchanged. Channel 4 detailed how, of the £2.50 spent on a latte in the UK, only a fraction of a penny goes to the worker who picks the beans. While child labour is illegal, this inequality and exploitation is legal and perfectly normal and acceptable under capitalism.
Slick “ethical” PR and branding are relatively cheap. But the price of real justice is one that the coffee companies will not be willing to pay, unless they are forced to do so by trade union organisation and political struggle by workers. While it’s a positive that Starbucks and Nespresso feel under pressure from their consumers, fundamentally there is no ethical consumption under a system that thrives on cheap labour and massive global inequality, and history shows that organisation and struggle is the only sure path to a better life for working people.