Dispatches on Channel 4 last night (2/3/20) raised the thorny issue of child labour in coffee being purchased by such behemoths as Starbucks and Nestle from Guatemala. Simply put, the pickers are being paid so little money that families have no choice but to get their kids working from a young age so that they can put food on the table.
It’s easy to kick the high profile names, however, we’re all culpable. Today we spend on average just over 10% of our income on food whereas in the 1950’s we spent over 20%. That differential is now spent on “leisure”; that’s anything from holidays to Play Station as well as increased housing costs.
The giant supermarkets have in turn delivered on our expectations of cheap food and heaven help any chief executive who doesn’t squeeze every last ounce of efficiency from their supply chain. Profits drive share prices which in turn drive pension expectations. How much will be in the pot for us when we retire? Pension funds simply pull out of the worst performers as we do.
Finally, commodities post-2008 are now traded in much the same ways as equities through financial instruments such as ETF’s (Exchange-traded funds). There has never been so much volatility in commodity prices. The only people who know anything about the cost of production are the producers whilst those who determine the price sit at a screen only interested as to whether they can make more money out of Wheat than Coffee this week.
This is where our globalised world has taken us, a world of gross inequity. Not just between the first and emerging worlds but also within our own society. We need to row back but it seems the biggest organisations in the world chasing billions of dollars are either unwilling or unable to change in the current climate.
I believe that this is where small organisations like mine can make progress with our ability to personalise our offer. Having recently returned from Honduras I have met with producers endeavouring to get better prices for their co-operatives. This is despite the impact of climate change and collapsing world coffee prices. We can only purchase small quantities, however, if there are enough small scale coffee roasters willing to support these co-operatives then we have a viable business model. Consumers need to be educated daily and we have found there is a willing audience.
The impact of paying below production costs in Honduras has seen producers walk away from their farms and join dangerous caravans of people heading north to the US. We see it on our own shores and wonder how we can stop this tide of human misery. Cause and effect.
Building higher and stronger barriers just doesn’t cut it. Until we can collectively solve the problem at source child labour will continue to be an issue for years to come.