LATTE ILLUSION

Jan. 19, 2017

By Marcus Stern

TAPACHULA, Mexico – Far from the espresso bars of Manhattan, Montreal and Madrid, children as young as seven can be seen lugging sacks of coffee along the Ruta del Café in southernmost Mexico. Some have been picking for hours under the hot Chiapas sun, the grasp of their tiny fingers the coffee’s first step in a long journey toward a waiting barista.

International agreements and the laws of nations would seem to preclude such labors by children. Under Mexican law, no one under 15 is allowed to work these rugged slopes. Nor does the picture mesh with the assurances and marketing of a growing segment of the coffee industry that its beans are obtained without child exploitation. Given the widespread “certification” of ethically sourced coffee and other products these days, a typical consumer of a latte – or a T-shirt or tomato – might be forgiven for assuming the purchase is helping someone else a world away.

Yet for all the feel-good consumerism of wealthier economies, the people at the bottom of the supply chain often find themselves desperate as ever, to the point of putting their children to work to avoid going hungry. Concealed in the cost of a cup of coffee is a human toll that remains largely unaddressed despite the emergence over decades of intricate fixes designed with the best of intentions to safeguard and improve lives.

A yearlong investigation by The Weather Channel and Telemundo has gathered evidence that child labor is commonplace during the coffee harvest in Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico, revealing failures and limitations of an elaborate global system of third-party monitoring established by the coffee industry to assure its sourcing is ethical. For inspection purposes, farms are organized into large groups. Only a small sampling of each group gets inspected each year – frequently less than 2 percent. And surprise inspections are rare.

This means that even large coffee companies such as Nestlé or Starbucks, which rely on inspections to back up their claims for ethical sourcing, cannot really vouch for what happens on millions of coffee farms from which they acquire beans. So while big companies buy tens of thousands of tons of beans from Chiapas each year, including farms where children were filmed lugging heavy sacks of coffee, the companies have limited support for their sweeping assertions about ethical sourcing.

A young girl works on one of the farms visited by reporters on this story.
Credit: The Weather Channel and Telemundo

Consumers, too, lack a clear window into the source of their favorite drinks. The coffee harvest, which stretches from October to March, is a bustling time here in Chiapas, where an estimated 30,000 destitute Guatemalan coffee pickers cross the nearby border, often in desperation with children in tow. They can’t afford to leave their children at home. They need all the hands they can muster to maximize their income. For many, earnings in southernmost Mexico during the harvest will be all that stands between them and hunger after they return home.

“There’s no other way” said a Guatemalan woman picking coffee cherries along the Ruta del Café last fall with a daughter, no more than nine, at her side. Back in Guatemala, “there is no money to buy clothes, to eat, to dress the children.” Nor are there jobs.

'There is no money to buy clothes, to eat, to dress the children.'

At the end of their days on the steep hillsides, the youngest pickers typically stay with adult workers in dilapidated sleeping quarters little better than barns, often sharing wooden bunks as beds. Toilets can be primitive as a hole in the ground; hot and cold running water a rarity.

Adults earn as little as $4.50 a day, subsisting on two meals of beans and tortillas while saving their earnings to take home after the harvest. One Chiapas-based coffee exporter whose operation supports local schools said he shudders when he thinks of the meager meals served on the farms he visits, noting guiltily, “I probably eat five times that.”

A birds-eye view of a plantation in Chiapas.

'NOTHING’S CHANGED'

The Weather Channel and Telemundo visited farms in Chiapas and interviewed owners, exporters, inspectors and scores of other players within the coffee world from the bottom to the top of the supply chain. Many spoke only on the condition they not be identified, for fear of losing their jobs or clients. Some appeared on camera and spoke on the record. Many in the coffee industry say it is doing all it can to combat child labor and improve living conditions for coffee producing communities.

Despite isolated success stories, however, progress has been incremental and mixed, with conditions in many of the world’s top coffee-producing nations as precarious as those in Chiapas, or worse – and many people within the coffee industry interviewed for this story said as much.

'You have some of the wealthiest companies in the world taking advantage of some of the poorest people in the world.'

“In the estate, big-farm world, nothing’s changed, nothing,” said Martin Mayorga of Mayorga Organics, a Rockville, Md.-based organics importer and coffee roaster who buys directly from farmers and sells his coffee in Costco stores. “This is what really pisses me off. You have some of the wealthiest companies in the world taking advantage of some of the poorest people in the world, literally completely making money off their backs. Nothing’s changed.”

Globally, coffee generates more than $80 billion a year. Mayorga’s company did $25 million in sales in 2015, just part of a surge in purchases of ethically sourced coffee over the last decade. Large coffee companies, such as Keurig, Folgers, Maxwell House and Starbucks, measure their sales in the billions. This behemoth industry knows the issues, says Mayorga, and could do more to solve them. “The industry chooses not to, because it’s very profitable to not do anything about it…. Doing it right means a lot of money left on the table for these big companies.”

Coffee beans pass through many hands during their long journey from grower to consumer: buyers, processors, shippers, exporters, importers.

“What happens in the industry is that segmentation is a great place for reality to hide,” Mayorga said. “The broker doesn’t know what the roaster doesn’t know.” With so many players between grower and roaster, “‘it’s a mess and it’s purposeful.”

'The industry chooses not to, because it’s very profitable to not do anything about it.'

The U.S. Labor Department, which tracks goods produced by child labor in violation of international law, cites 14 nations, including Mexico and Guatemala, for using children in the production of coffee. It also implicates child labor in a wide range of other U.S. imports from dozens of countries: bricks, blueberries, glass, clothes, shoes, diamonds, and more.

“None of the products we consume on a daily basis should be made by an adult who is forced to produce them, or a child, under conditions that violate international law,” stated the latest report, in December 2014, of the Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, which gathers the data in an effort to coordinate global efforts to combat child labor. Noted the report: “We still have a long way to go.”

'If the average American knew there was a 7-year-old at the bottom of their cup, they’d be appalled.'

“Sadly, child labor is the norm these days in coffee,” said a leading coffee industry insider, adding that conditions for children on the farms have worsened in the past two years because of a 40 percent drop in the price of coffee on the world market. “If the average American knew there was a 7-year-old at the bottom of their cup, they’d be appalled,” he said.

The International Labour Organization, the arm of the United Nations that promotes workers’ rights, estimates that 168 million children worldwide still work, half of them in hazardous circumstances; 6 million are being forced to work. The Labor Department’s international affairs bureau reports that 136 products are made by child or forced labor in 74 countries, from carpets to Christmas decorations.

“To say that children under 15 do not work in fields is completely out of context with the reality in Mexico,” said a North American coffee importer who worked for years in Chiapas.

Ethical Sourcing: A Powerful Marketing Tool

Over the past three decades, coffee has spawned a cottage industry of organizations to certify that product lines advertised as being ethically sourced actually are. Many coffee drinkers – especially millennials whose $200 billion in annual purchasing power are driving a boom in higher-priced coffee concoctions in wealthier nations – prefer to have their dollars follow their conscience.

Most coffee drinkers remain unfamiliar with sourcing labels, said Mark DiDomenico, director of business development at a leading food industry marketing firm, Datassential. Among the 20 percent of consumers who are familiar with labels, more than half say the certification drives their purchasing behavior. The younger the consumer, the more potent the message, said DiDomenico. For these 20 percent, the certification labels are seals of approval. Cause-driven consumers are willing to pay extra for them.

To be sure, some of the money makes its way to the farmers and creates opportunities where fewer might otherwise exist. It earns them a higher price and access to a more dependable, higher-revenue market, as long as they comply with ethical codes of conduct adopted by the coffee companies. But the added cost to farmers of complying with these ethical standards – forsaking the use of child workers, providing pesticide safety suits and the extra paperwork involved – can more than offset the higher selling prices they get.

Starbucks promotes its ethically sourced line of coffee from Chiapas, Mexico. This display, featuring its jaguar-themed packaging is from a store in Miami, FL.
Credit: Chris Roy

Ethical sourcing – and its benefits to coffee-producing communities – is a prominent feature of coffee company marketing. “When we visit the farmer after three years of being in the program and we actually see the improvement to his farm, the improvement of the productivity, the improvement to his life and the livelihood of his family, that is very gratifying to see,” said Tim Scharrer, director of green coffee trading for Starbucks. His comments are featured in a video on Starbuck’s website.

Coffee companies pay certification organizations to draw up the standards and oversee compliance within their vast supply chains. Among these organizations: Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade International, Rainforest Alliance and the Amsterdam-based certifier Utz. Starbucks has its own certification system called C.A.F.E. Practices. (Other labels, such as organic and Smithsonian Bird Friendly, assure standards unrelated to ethical or social causes.) Certification organizations receive millions of dollars a year from the coffee companies for their services and for the marketing use of their labels.

Codes of conduct are one thing – verifying compliance is another. That task is left to a proliferating worldwide legion of private third-party inspection companies.

Unlike organics, no government agency oversees ethical certification.

FEW INSPECTIONS

Beneath the marketing: Little scrutiny

The Weather Channel and Telemundo found significant weaknesses in the verification process, raising questions that might shake the confidence of conscientious consumers paying extra for compliance with the ethical standards. These weaknesses make it possible for poor working and living conditions and other labor violations to slip through the certification process. Farmers generally know when inspectors are coming, with plenty of time to fix anything that might be amiss. And even if the inspectors conducted surprise inspections, there are simply too many farms to inspect. In Mexico alone, there are an estimated 500,000 coffee producers, many of them impoverished farm families with land holdings under five acres. Worldwide, there are 25 million. Many of these growers, off the grid, are in remote, undeveloped areas that are inaccessible without farm trucks, local guides or foot trails.

There are simply too many farms to inspect.

By far, the most daunting challenge of verification is the sheer number of individual farms. For certification purposes they are organized into cooperatives or groups numbering in the hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands.

“It would be absolutely impossible to imagine an audit where every single farmer who is selling his coffee through the cooperative gets inspected,” said Veronica Perez, who at the time of the interview was a spokesperson for the 4C Association, which calls itself an “entry-level” verification program. “It’s just not economically viable. It’s not possible.”

4C (Common Code for the Coffee Community) is one of the world’s largest verifiers of conditions on coffee farms and closely associated with one of the world’s largest coffee producers, Nestlé. In 2016, 4C merged with other sustainability organizations to form the Global Coffee Platform. Because the company was 4C at the time of the filming for this story, October 2015, this article will refer to the company as 4C.

A 4C farm group that supplies beans to a major global coffee company examined for this article has 5,144 farms, which is not an uncommon amount. Clearly, they can’t all be inspected. But what is the proper sample size? In this case, 4C’s formula allows for as few as 36 of the 5,144 farms to be visited – slightly more than one-half of 1 percent – every three years.

Most farm certifiers use a sampling method known as the square-root rule to determine the minimum number of properties they must inspect within any single group of farms.

Prominent certifiers like Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade International, Rainforest Alliance and Utz, conduct their inspections annually rather than every third year, as 4C does. And they inspect at least the full square root of the number of farms in a group – rather than half, as 4C does. If the group has 16 farms, major certifiers inspect at least four. If it has 100, they inspect at least 10. But these farm groups frequently number in the thousands.

The square-root rule creates an inverse effect: The larger the group, the smaller the portion of farms inspected. For example, the minimum sample for a group of 300 farms would be 6 percent. For a group of 5,000, it would be 1.4 percent. And for a group of 10,000, it would be 1 percent. New York-based Rainforest Alliance, a leading global certifier, inspects about 3 percent of the farms in groups, said Alex Morgan, the group’s director of markets transformation. Large commercial farms are inspected annually, he added.

By contrast, organic certifiers in the 1980s and 1990s examined 20 percent, said Luis Brenes, a Costa Rica-based independent organic farm inspector who has been auditing farms around the world for more than two decades. Organic certifiers visited a different 20 percent each year in hopes of inspecting all of the farms in each group every five years. Today, organic certifiers do fewer inspections. But the organic world’s rules on sampling, while evolving, still result in more inspections than is the case with ethically sourced farms.

“I have never done square-root in my life,” said Brenes.

Because many ethically certified farms are also organic, one might think the extra rigor of the organic inspections would help with the ethical concerns. But that’s not necessarily the case. For instance, Brenes explained, if he were to find slave labor on a farm it wouldn’t affect the farm’s certification. Organic certification focuses on things like pesticide use – not social or ethical matters.

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'A Sense of False Security'

The square-root rule has long been used for quality control in industrial settings, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, where automated outcomes are highly predictable. But it appears to have little statistical basis when applied to the inspection of farms. A group of 5,000 small family farms in the developing world bears little resemblance to a modern assembly line, especially when the farmers have financial incentives to cut corners and know when the inspectors are coming.

An international organization that advises certification programs on best practices recommends they have “a consistent formula for sample sizes” and be “transparent about that formula,” said Lara Koritzke, director of communications for the London-based group, known as the ISEAL Alliance (International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling).

But, as a matter of policy, ISEAL doesn’t advise certifiers about the validity of the square-root rule — or recommend any minimum-inspection requirements — because of “the variability of our different members and the factors they have to take into account,” said Sue Clift, ISEAL’s communications manager.

However, ISEAL documents obtained by The Weather Channel and Telemundo raise questions about its use. A seven-page guide on ISEAL stationery dated February 2013 described the square-root method as “convenient and simple” but warned that its use “may create a sense of false security.”

Another guide, dated May 2013, concluded the square-root approach “has no statistical validity and may be quite inappropriate in some circumstances” because of very high margins of error. “The square-root rule seems to have been first adopted in the 1920s by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) because it was an easy rule for its inspectors to remember, despite knowing there was no statistical basis for it,” according to the 136-page guide.

The findings in the ISEAL documents echo recommendations prepared for a 2002 workshop conducted by Germany-based IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements), a global umbrella group for organic agriculture. That group concluded the square-root rule was efficient, but added, “The problem is that there is absolutely no scientific backing for this formula.”

The few inspections that do occur generally are scheduled in advance with the farm group – thus allowing farmers to prepare, rather than present a realistic, everyday picture of circumstances at the farm. While the farm groups know in advance what day the inspectors will show up, they don’t know which individual farms will be inspected.

When violations are found, they generally result in citations rather than a farm being expelled from the group.

The major certifying organizations defended the system.

“No program, standard, or testing protocol can provide a 100 percent guarantee,” said Nathan Smith, managing director of Emeryville, Calif.,-based SCS Global Services, which conducts farm inspections on behalf of Starbucks and Fair Trade USA. The square-root rule, he explained, provides “a baseline understanding.”

'The problem is there is simply no scientific backing' for the square-root rule.

Alex Morgan of the Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade USA’s Ben Corey-Moran noted that verifiers may inspect a larger number of farms if they believe a group is likely to have problems. They also train individual farmers to be internal inspectors so the group can regulate itself, with the outside certifier looking over its shoulder. Given the inevitable inability of certifying organizations to inspect every farm, farmers must know how to do the right things themselves, said Morgan, adding that it might appear to be “self-policing,” but there are “many layers of rigor and independence built into the system.” The goal, they said, is to build a culture of best practices within each farm group.

If this internal management system “works well,” said Beth Hearn, a spokesperson for the German certifier Utz, the “audit ensures the necessary systems and structures are in place.”

While inspections are scheduled in advance, farm groups don’t know which of their specific farms will be inspected. Fairtrade International spokesman Martin Atkin said prior notification is necessary “so the organization can ensure it makes available any important evidence and paperwork, and also so that key individuals are available for interview….”

Others noted that a limited number of inspections is better than no outside monitoring whatsoever – still prevalent in much of the coffee world. Two of the top-selling coffee brands, Folgers and Maxwell House, don’t emphasize ethical sourcing or third-party verification the way Starbucks or even Nestlé does. Folgers said 10 percent of its coffee this year will be third-party verified. Maxwell House declined to discuss its sourcing, saying it’s proprietary.

At the other end of the quality spectrum, many boutique roasters buy their high-quality beans directly from farmers. They claim their beans have been ethically sourced but don’t bother with costly certification and independent inspection programs. Instead, they say their direct, long-term relationship with those farmers ensures the growers’ lives are improved and that international labor standards for workers are met.

Four companies did not respond to requests for this story for the percentage of their certified farms that are independently inspected each year: Starbucks, Keurig, The J.M. Smucker Co. (parent company of Folgers and Dunkin’ Donuts) and The Kraft Heinz Co. (parent company of Maxwell House).

Each of the certification programs can point to projects and programs they say have had favorable impacts and features that make them different from the others. (Click on the following links for information about each certification program: Fairtrade International, Fair Trade USA, Rainforest Alliance, Utz, Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices and 4C. You can also see a side-by-side comparison here.)

 

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CHILD LABOR

To Work -- or Starve?

Certification organizations and coffee companies are hardly to blame for larger, contextual afflictions in many of the globe’s coffee-growing lands. These issues go back centuries, and coffee interests in wealthier nations alone would be unlikely to make much of a dent in the human conditions bedeviling many of the world’s 25 million coffee producers.

Pickers of the red cherries that eventually become dried or roasted beans toil in some of the poorest corners of globe. Many of these communities in Latin America, Asia and Africa, while freed from centuries of colonialism, slavery and indentured servitude, still are mired in the relentless poverty of undeveloped economies.

Extreme poverty in Guatemala leads families to find work in Mexico.
Credit: JOHAN ORDONEZ / AFP / Getty Images

Protecting children from having to work? Preventing logging in the rainforest? Making sure every worker has a separate bed and bedside lamp? People in these communities often face a level of food insecurity that can make such concerns far from primary – perhaps even laughable.

When a Guatemalan mother is desperate just to put food on the table, she isn’t focused on health, education, safety, codes of conduct or other impacts from her son or daughter having to haul heavy sacks day after day. She is just trying to help her children survive. In the impoverished communities of many coffee-producing nations, child labor, by necessity, is a way of life.

'Families put their kids to work because they desperately need the income.'

“Families put their kids to work because they desperately need the income,” said Robert W. Thurston, a professor emeritus of history at Miami University in Ohio, author of a book on the coffee industry and a commercial coffee roaster himself.

Not everyone is reflexively appalled by the thought of young children picking cherries alongside their parents.

William Myers, a visiting scholar at the University of California at Davis who has worked with UNICEF and the International Labour Organization, said many researchers disagree with the current approach of banning all children under a certain age from any kind of work. Instead, they argue, children under 15 should be allowed to work when and where it’s appropriate – but with strong safeguards and stepped-up labor enforcement for all children younger than 18.

A young boy helps his family by laboring in a Tapachula coffee plantation.
Credit: The Weather Channel and Telemundo

Minimum working age laws are well intended and politically popular, Myers said, but can have unintended adverse consequences for the children. They could go hungry for lack of money, or they might be left unattended when their parents leave for the farms. Another possibility is that laws enacted in distant capitals with the best of intentions – in Mexico’s case, to comply with an international labor agreement – can have little consequence where the impact is intended, on the ground in rural coffee communities. In the real world, the laws might be largely ignored – as appears to be the case in Chiapas.

“It’s prohibited, but it’s tolerated,” said Jorge Reina, a former priest now in the coffee business in Tapachula.

The Struggle of Small Farmers

Farm owners aren’t without their own financial insecurities. It can cost a farmer more to produce a pound of coffee than she can make from it – and they frequently are women. With market prices for coffee set on a New York commodity exchange, the farmer helplessly rides the tiger of hedge fund investment activities that can influence daily and longer-term swings in the price they get for their beans.

Coffee produced using child labor makes its way to espresso bars in wealthy nations.
Credit: Thinkstock

Farm owners, often poor themselves, might be hard-pressed to provide adequate housing for migrant workers who may be there for only a few weeks every year. Nor can they easily afford to provide day care services, schooling or three nutritionally balanced meals a day.

Like the indigenous Guatemalans who cross the border to pick their coffee, many of the farmers of Chiapas are just trying to eke out an existence at the bottom of a vast and murky supply chain. Their struggles play out a world away from glitzy espresso bars where a single foam-topped coffee drink can sell for as much as a Guatemalan picker makes in a day in Chiapas.

Living on Beans, Sleeping in a Barn

Mauricio Tomasini Bassols’ 270-acre coffee farm near Tapachula, Mexico lies in the shadow of Guatemala’s 13,000-foot Volcán Tacaná, the second-highest peak in Central America. The view from his farmhouse’s ochre-colored veranda is of a verdant canopy of coffee trees.

Trailing down the hillside is a string of rotting wooden and tin structures. The interiors contain little more in the way of amenities than long wooden bunks and overhead lights. During the harvest, each are living quarters for about 30 or so Guatemalan guestworkers and their children.

Living conditions on a Tapachula-area coffee farm.
Credit: The Weather Channel and Telemundo

Tomasini feeds them twice a day. In the morning, they get beans, tortillas and coffee. In the afternoon, they get beans and tortillas again with either rice or pasta, he said. On Saturday, they might receive something extra, perhaps two eggs or a piece of chicken. Drinking water is available 24/7 from an underground spring through a pipe. Tomasini, when speaking of what he provides to laborers, refers to toilets and showers, though the toilets don’t have handles and must be flushed by pouring a bucket of water into them.

“We only provide the toilet bowl,” he explains, because the Guatemalan workers steal the handles and other hardware. Among the farm manager’s responsibilities is turning on the dormitory lights at 6 in the evening and off at 6 a.m. If workers had access to the switches, Tomasini said, they would steal or break them.

His biggest headache, he said, is that his workers bring their children and want to put them to work.

In 2014, Mexico amended its constitution to increase the minimum working age from 14 to 15 to comply with the International Labour Organization’s convention on minimum working age.

Children between 15 and 17 may work as long as it doesn’t harm their “health, safety or morals.”

Under a separate convention dealing with “worst forms of child labour,” which Mexico ratified in 2000, children between 15 and 17 are allowed to work outside the home with the consent of their parents as long as it doesn’t harm their “health, safety or morals.” In the farm setting, that is interpreted to preclude them from doing things like working around pesticides, dangerous equipment or carrying heavy loads. Another red line: They may not miss school.

Additionally, growers like Tomasini are required to provide suitable housing, sanitation, clean water and decent meals. The international labor body sets housing standards for migrant laborers that include a separate bed for each worker, bedding materials, separate accommodation for the sexes, a reading lamp for each bed, lockers or other furniture to secure belongings and laundry facilities. There should be “a minimum of one toilet, one wash basin and one tub or shower for every six persons,” according to guidance the international labor organization provides to employers.

BEHIND THE LABEL

Child Labor – Hiding in Plain Sight

For their part, companies that purchase coffee from farms such as Tomasini’s say they believe that the farmers are complying with requirements, providing safe, suitable accommodations and never relying on child labor. But they depend on the certification organizations, verification companies, intermediaries and the government to watch for violations.

A Nestle spokesman said farms it uses have not been pointed out for 'child labor-related irregularities'.
Credit: Luke Leyden

Nestlé, the world’s biggest food manufacturer by sales and maker of the globally popular brand Nescafe, buys coffee from Tomasini. The beans go from his farm to a Nestlé factory in the state of Mexico, where in 2015 almost 20,000 tons of Chiapas coffee was processed and distributed worldwide, according to Nestlé. Starbucks and other major brands also buy Chiapas coffee.

When The Weather Channel and Telemundo first visited Tomasini’s farm, called Chapultepec, in October 2015, without his or Nestlé’s knowledge, the networks’ cameras documented children stripping ripe, red coffee cherries with their tiny fingers from the long, bent branches of coffee trees. They filmed the children carrying the cherries in bulging sacks down the Ruta del Café, which meanders through the jungles north of Tapachula right past Tomasini’s farm. The children said they were taking the coffee to a place on Tomasini’s farm where the coffee cherries would begin their transformation into beans.

Two boys, aged 12 and 14, were bent over carrying sacks of coffee cherries. The older boy’s bag weighed close to 100 pounds. His younger brother’s bag was 60 to 70 pounds. Even younger children – perhaps as young as five – carried lighter loads.

Emilio Diaz, who oversees Nestlé’s coffee supply chain in Mexico, said he was surprised to hear that children had been filmed helping with the harvest on a farm that supplies beans to his company. He, a corporate spokeswoman and three Nestlé agronomists, led The Weather Channel and Telemundo on a tour of two of the coffee giant’s farms near Tapachula. The owners of two farms were welcoming and the conditions were much better than those filmed on Chapultepec. No children were seen. These farms also are featured on the company’s website.

Toward the end of the day, the group visited Tomasini’s farm. Now, three months after he had talked openly with a reporter over two days, Tomasini appeared agitated and refused to talk. The dorms on his property were tied shut with rope and few workers were visible – no children. Diaz spent several minutes calming down Tomasini, after which the farm owner agreed to sit on his veranda, watch the video of the children, and comment about it. He adamantly denied the children in the video had worked for him, saying he didn’t recognize them.

“I don’t have dozens of kids working on my farm,” Tomasini said. “I’ve never had them, never – not even during seasonal labor times. I don’t have them…. Five-year-olds? No, no. I am not a slave driver. That ended years ago…. Five-year-olds is slavery.”

Diaz said Nestlé is trying to avoid child labor in its supply chain and, as far as it knows, has succeeded. But he said it’s a problem ultimately that Nestlé alone can’t solve.

“We cannot ensure that we will solve the problem,” he said, because Nestlé doesn’t have the authority to enforce labor laws. That must be done by the Mexican government. “We would love to be able to do it but this is a very complex situation. So we will do our best as we are doing now to contribute and to improve the coffee farming conditions.”

A boy carries a heavy sack of coffee down the Ruta del Café.
Credit: The Weather Channel and Telemundo

Tomasini said he tries but simply can’t persuade his Guatemalan guestworkers to leave their children at home. Parents feel their children are safer and better off with them rather than being left behind in Guatemala. Plus, they can make more money if their children are there to help. If he were to be strict, he would lose his labor supply; the families would simply move to other farms. His coffee crop would rot on the ground.

“If you say no, they leave the farm… all is lost,” he said.

But Tomasini does draw a line, he said. To comply with child labor laws he doesn’t allow children under 15 to leave the dorm area while their parents are working.

“I give an order: ‘No children go to the plantations,’” Tomasini said. Any children under 15 filmed working by The Weather Channel and Telemundo last October must have been picking and carrying for a neighboring farm, he said, noting that one had been raided a few weeks after the networks’ film crew visited last fall.

If he were to be strict, the families would simply move to other farms.

Television coverage posted on the Internet by a local news organization suggested a crackdown. A dozen or so agents are seen raiding a nearby farm named San Lorenzo. They mill around while children as young as seven continue sorting cherries. A boy slightly older wrestles a sack of coffee almost as large as he is onto his back and carries it haltingly up a set of stairs. Not even the raid, conducted with the help of armed men in balaclavas, interrupted the work of the children. Months later, two men at the farm said authorities had checked only to see if the parents’ guestworker permits were in order and found they were. The farm expects to receive a government seal certifying it as free of child labor, they said. As of late July, there had been no fines levied against San Lorenzo in connection with the raid the previous November, according to Julio César Dominguez Hernández, the top official with the federal Labor Department in Tapachula. When pressed about why, he said the matter had not been entirely closed and fines still could be issued. In December, prior to publication, The Weather Channel and Telemundo attempted to check back with labor officials in Tapachula to find out if fines were ever levied but did not get a response.

It remains unclear if the raid had had any meaningful impact on San Lorenzo’s operation.

‘NOT EXPLOITATION’

Tomasini did not deny that children between 15 and 17 helped with his harvest last fall. But he insists he did not hire them and they are not on his payroll. The law allows them to help their parents, he said. Any coffee cherries picked by these children are treated for payment purposes as if they had been picked by their parents. He has no direct business relationship with the 15- to 17-year-old child workers, he said.

'In the mind of the workers it is not exploitation.'

Some of Chiapas’ larger farms have small schools or day care centers, but it’s rare for a smaller farm to have one. The children filmed on Tomasini’s farm said their schools in Guatemala were on break. Tomasini said he hopes to start a school when he can afford it. Meanwhile, the young children and infants who don’t go to the fields look after themselves, he explained: “The mother goes to pick and the oldest son stays here… to take care of his (younger) brothers.”

When The Weather Channel and Telemundo visited Tomasini’s farm during the harvest last October, nobody was in the dorms during the middle of the day. Even the youngest of children were on the slopes with their parents.

The housing, food and pay he provides are better than what the workers are used to in Guatemala, he said, adding that the pay is above Mexico’s minimum wage.

“In the mind of the workers it is not exploitation,” Tomasini said.

In 2015, a government labor inspector made a routine check of the farm to make sure the living accommodations were suitable for the migrant workers. He found that Tomasini’s were substandard.

“He said, ‘It is necessary for you to have new dorms,’” Tomasini recalled. “OK. But my economy is not good…. If I have the money I do what they say. If I don’t have the money what can I do?”

The labor inspector said he would return in a year, Tomasini said.

DEEPER PROBLEMS

Interviews with other coffee farmers in Chiapas suggest Tomasini isn’t an outlier. Rather he seems to be typical of the farm owners here in Mexico’s poorest state, bordering even-poorer Guatemala. They’re all participants in a labor market model commonly found along borders that separate countries with lopsided economies. Three-quarters of Germany’s 380,000 guestworkers in 2004 were from neighboring Poland. A large segment of the agriculture labor force in border states Texas and California is comprised of undocumented workers and guestworkers from Mexico and Central America. Farm owners in Chiapas said they rely on Guatemalan workers because they are more willing and capable than Mexicans to do the work. Chiapas, poor as it is, is still better off than Guatemala. As happens along other global borders, guestworkers here are willing to work for lower wages and and put up with poorer living and working conditions than locals – in this case Chiapanecos, as the people of Chiapas refer to themselves.

Extreme poverty drives Guatemalan workers north into Mexico.

Indeed, extreme poverty drives Guatemalan workers with their children north across the border into Mexico. Guatemala has the fourth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world and the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the U.N.’s World Food Program.

Compounding the problem sociologically: While many workers are indigenous Guatemalans, the larger farms tend to be owned by the descendants of relatively recent immigrants from Europe. Tomasini’s grandfather immigrated to this area from France in 1917 and gradually purchased, parcel by parcel, all of the volcanic highlands that now make up Chapultepec.

Tomasini denied that children under 15 helped with his harvest.
Credit: The Weather Channel and Telemundo

Today, the grandson is struggling to hold onto the farm. Many of his coffee plants became infected with a fungus that coats the leaves in rust-colored splotches and prevents the plant from bearing coffee cherries. The disease, commonly referred to as coffee rust, has spread throughout Central America and Mexico, creating a crisis for many coffee farmers.

With both his yield and prices down, Tomasini three years ago was thinking about selling his farm. Instead, he embarked on a multiyear strategy to rip out his high-end but delicate arabica coffee trees, which are especially prone to rust, and replace them with robusta, a hardier coffee plant that produces more beans than arabica but has a harsher flavor. Nestlé is helping fund the transition by providing him with robusta plants and buying the beans his plants produce when they mature. Nestlé uses robusta beans for instant coffee – still a very large market around the world. In exchange, Nestlé expects Tomasini to abide by a range of ethical standards, including not allowing children under 15 to work on his farm.

MIDDLEMEN

OUTSOURCING ETHICS AND INSPECTIONS

Swiss-based Nestlé doesn’t deal directly with Tomasini. Instead, it works through a local intermediary, Merino Telis Café. Nestlé provides young robusta plants to Tomasini through Merino, and Merino supervises Tomasini’s care of them. The farm’s conversion to robusta will occur parcel by parcel over several more years. His first robusta plants went in three years ago, and Tomasini had his first small robusta harvest last fall. Merino, the intermediary, did not respond to inquiries. Nestlé spokeswoman Lorena Herrera stressed that the amount of robusta purchased from Tomasini was small and that it remains Nestlé’s only purchase from him to date.

Like many coffee companies, Nestlé doesn't deal directly with farmers; it uses intermediaries.

To oversee its social responsibility efforts, Nestlé relies on 4C.

Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade International, Rainforest Alliance and Utz refer to themselves as certification systems, while 4C stops short of that term. Instead, it describes itself as an “entry-level” verification system. 4C inspects fewer farms at less-frequent intervals than the others and its standards generally are lower.

A focus on plants - not people?

Tomasini said that during the three years he has been part of the program, nobody from 4C has visited his farm. “But someone from Merino comes once or twice a month,” he said. “They come by to look at the little plants Nestlé gave me.”

4C doesn’t visit every farm. As is the industry practice, it visits a small sample of them. But 4C allows for half as many as inspections as the major certification groups. (4C uses one-half of the square root of the number of farms in a group rather than the square root.).

Nestlé’s Diaz noted that 4C, not Nestlé, decides how many farms will be in inspected.

“If we have a universe of 1,000 or 2,000 farmers they will take a sample of this universe, but this is not decided by us,” he said. “This is them.”

'Someone from Merino comes once or twice a month. They come by to look at the little plants Nestlé gave me.'

Nestlé’s Herrera said the company makes every effort to avoid child labor on farms in its supply chain and, as far as she knows, has succeeded. “Nestlé hasn’t received any reports of child labor violations on any of its farms in Chiapas,” she said.

That assurance comes with an unstated caveat: The way the 4C system works, a little over half of a percent of the farms in many of its groups may be inspected, and only every third year. The inspections are generally scheduled in advance so the farmers might know when the inspectors might be coming.

Tomasini’s farm is part of a group that numbers 5,144, according to 4C spokeswoman Perez. So, according to the industry practice, a little math comes into play: The square root of 5,144 is 71.72. Most certification organizations would require at least 72 of those 5,144 farms to be inspected annually, or about 1.4 percent. But 4C’s minimum is half of the square root of the total number of farms in a group. And it does it every three years rather than annually. So, of the 5,144 farms in Chapultepec’s group, 4C requires as few as 36 inspections every three years. With those odds, Chapultepec could go centuries without being selected for an inspection.

4C may inspect as few as 36 of 5,144 farms every three years, a little over half of a percent.

In between those inspections, 4C requires the farms to monitor themselves, Perez added, “and send their results to their 4C Verification Department.”

Across Mexico, 4C oversees compliance on 25,002 farms. To accomplish that, it conducted 422 inspections during the past three-and-a-half years, a Nestlé official said. That’s 1.7 percent. The actual number of farms inspected was smaller because some were return visits to farms already inspected. The actual percentage, therefore, is lower, as well.

That number – 422 – underscores another limitation in how ethically sourced coffee and other products are certified. The number is still far more than the minimum number of inspections that would have been required if 4C used the full square root, the industry standard, rather than half. Certifiers using the full square root could do as few as 159 inspections to certify a group of 25,002 farms. These organizations include all the big ones: Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade International, Utz and Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices.

Nestlé’s Diaz, after looking at the images of young children carrying heavy sacks of coffee, said 4C’s monitoring system and his small team of agronomists might not be enough to give him a clear view of his supply chain at the farm level. But Herrera, the Nestlé spokeswoman, said the company has full faith in 4C’s approach, calling it a “serious entity that provides an important insight regarding the work done in the field.”

As for Tomasini, Diaz said the coffee farmer would be placed on an improvement plan. If he can’t bring his farm up to standard, including abiding by child labor laws, he will be bounced from the Nestlé program and once again face the risk of losing the farm his grandfather pieced together over many years.

For his part, Diaz fondly recalled spending time as a child working on his uncle’s coffee farm over long weekends and on vacations. Nestlé agronomist Alberto Gonzalez, who grew up on a farm, echoed Diaz’s nostalgia.

“It’s very similar to my experience,” he said. “The coffee fields became our playgrounds. When you live in the countryside you don’t have bikes to ride on the street. You’re just playing with your cousins along the coffee trees and sometimes you help the grown-ups to do some of the work. It’s like part of the formation as a child… It’s not child labor. It’s family work.”

A Role Model’s Lack of Transparency

Starbucks, like many coffee companies in prosperous nations, boasts of its rigorous standards of ethical and sustainable sourcing. The ubiquitous brand, with its green mermaid logo, developed its own certification program called “C.A.F.E. Practices,” short for Coffee and Farmer Equity. Its goal is to improve “the lives and livelihoods of coffee farmers and their communities.” Starbucks, too, relies on the square-root rule to “protect the rights of workers and ensure safe, fair and humane working and living conditions,” including prohibiting child labor. It holds its program out to the industry as a role model for best practices.

Starbucks relies on the square-root rule.
Credit: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

For all the pronouncements and many web pages it devotes to conveying transparency in its supply chain, Starbucks isn’t open about where those practices are put into action. The company declines to furnish the names and locations of its providers because it considers that information proprietary.

The Weather Channel and Telemundo discovered that clarity isn’t necessarily gained even with guidance from industry insiders. What’s said to be so, changes later. A farm that supplies coffee to a particular company says it no longer does, or a coffee company says it has certified a particular farm – but then says it hasn’t actually purchased any beans from it. Even the twisting dirt tracks leading to farms themselves often don’t appear on maps. The coffee supply chain can be as opaque as coffee itself.

Industry sources, asking not to be identified for fear of commercial repercussions, provided The Weather Channel and Telemundo with the names of two Starbucks-approved farms in Chiapas – Santa Cecilia and La Union. They lie astride a mountain pass near Lago La Angostura and the lakefront city of La Concordia.

The city of La Concordia lies near two Starbucks C.A.F.E. farms.
Credit: Wikimedia.com

Mario Alberto Lopez, a La Concordia coffee farmer, helped a reporter locate the farms. After a long and bouncy ride, his farm truck pulled to a stop outside La Union. A padlocked gate barred entry. A couple of hundred yards from the gate were farm buildings and young men who appeared to be playing futbol. They ignored Alberto’s truck horn and his shouts, and he eventually gave up.

Santa Cecilia wasn’t far away. Less than a mile up the dirt road, Alberto took a sharp left, descended a steep bank, forded a fast-moving stream and climbed a mountain trail beneath a jungle canopy until reaching another padlocked gate. Once again, he honked his truck’s horn determinedly. This time, a man on a motorbike arrived. He refused to allow the party to enter the farm.

Video mobile image

A Farm Owner: ‘I Don’t Use Children.’

Outside the gate, a farmworker, Tibucio Bonifaz Hernandez, waited in the shade of a tree with his family. He said Guatemalan families, including children, pick the coffee cherries on Santa Cecilia. Sanitation and housing are primitive.

Starbucks found La Union and Santa Cecilia "met our expectations."

The farmworker had grievances against the owner, Ernesto Jaeger. None of the worker’s assertions could be verified without touring the farm, talking with other workers and interviewing Jaeger himself. When the Weather Channel and Telemundo reached Jaeger by phone, he declined a request for a tour of the property.

Jaeger did, however, agree to talk with a reporter at a Pemex gas station several miles from his farm.

“I don’t work for the Starbucks program,” he said. “I don’t have the money…. I tried two years to work with Starbucks but can’t and now I don’t work with Starbucks.”

Starbucks spokeswoman Haley Drage later said Jaeger’s two farms had been “evaluated across a set of 200 indicators that address environmental, social and economic conditions. While his farms have met our expectations, we have not purchased coffee from him and he is not required to sell his coffee to us and may make it available to anyone in the industry.”

Nathan Smith of SCS Global Services, which oversees farm inspections for Starbucks, confirmed “as part of our ongoing work with Starbucks, the two farms you have highlighted were physically inspected by an approved verification organization as part of the C.A.F.E. Practices auditing process.” SCS Global Services also performs audits for Fair Trade USA.

Back at the Pemex station, Jaeger described the bathrooms for 200 workers on Santa Cecilia as four latrines.

Asked what exactly he meant by a latrine, Jaeger replied, “It’s a hole. And when it’s full, then you need to make another one.”

When asked about the availability of hot water for bathing, he scoffed at the notion anyone in this intemperate climate would want hot water. “They prefer the other,” he said, “cold.”

Referring to his workers collectively in the third-person singular, Jaeger added cavalierly, “He loves to shower in the river, fishing, swimming, washing his clothes.”

FAIR TRADE

Best of Intentions, Incremental Results

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

Fair trade, which religious organizations once advocated as a form of charity, grew with the student protests of the 1960s against multinational corporations, what was sometimes called “neo-imperialism.” Then came the emergence of “alternative trading” shops where American and European consumers could buy products from distant impoverished producers, in Africa or South America. Some of the selling took place in the back of churches or roadside stands. Caring people could, as Oxfam once put it, engage in “helping by selling.”

'I’m fed up with churches praying for the poor.'

In the early 1980s, a Dutch missionary, Frans van der Hoff, returned from the Mexican state of Oaxaca with a plea to Europeans to pay significantly more for their coffee so indigenous Mexican coffee producers could achieve a more dignified standard of living.

Nico Roozen - an economist and co-founder of the fair trade movement.
Credit: Fruit.net.com/Flickr.com

“I’m fed up with churches praying for the poor,” said van der Hoff, who with economist Nico Roozen founded the fair trade movement. The concept was simple: Coffee growers would pool resources, working together to get their goods directly to market, bypassing the “coyotes” and other intermediaries who siphon much of the profits. Labels would assure consumers that working conditions and environmental circumstances were sound. Van der Hoff’s goal, as he put it in 2005, was “to create a world as a good and pleasant place to live in for everyone.”

Distribution channels broadened by the late-1980s, and fair trade and other labels started appearing on goods in stores where wealthier people normally shop. As corporations realized the value of the labels, new ones emerged. Hundreds of verification companies hired and trained thousands of auditors and inspectors. The labels enhanced consumer trust in goods from faraway places, eventually making certified or verified goods found everywhere from Walmart to Whole Foods popular and sometimes pricier.

Lying quietly at the bottom of this success is the square-root rule.

Direct Trade's Disregard for Verification

More recently, craft coffee roasters have been traveling to the coffee lands themselves and buying directly from farmers. Benefits include cutting out the importers and exporters. Another benefit is not having to bother with certification.

The cover of the May 2016 edition of Costco’s magazine for shoppers, The Costco Connection, features a story with the headline, “Coffee with a conscience.” Inside, an article profiles the Rogers Family Co., a roaster “that has built long-term sustainable relationships with thousands of farms” in Central America and Africa. “Their social programs are key,” Costco coffee buyer John Lee is quoted as saying. Another wholesale buyer for Costco, Jay Tilley adds, “Long before the words ‘fair trade’ or ‘sustainable’ were industry concerns, we were (practicing) it.”

But Rogers Family Co. Vice President John W. Rogers said the company doesn’t bother with third-party verification. Consumers can always go to the Lincoln, Calif.-based company’s website to “read about the farms and see the projects that we do,” he said.

Mayorga Organics buys directly from farmers.
Credit: Luke Leyden

Elsewhere in the Costco aisles, a mustard colored two-pound bag of Mayorga Organic LLC coffee proclaims its raison d’être in bold red letters: “To eliminate systemic poverty in Latin America through responsible trade of artisanal, organic foods.”

Martin Mayorga, its founder and president, doesn’t believe in third-party verification, either.

“A lot of these certifiers just want to get paid,” he said in an interview. “They’re just looking for more business. I’m like, ‘You know what, our guys know we pay them well. They do a great job for us. We get the quality we want. We get the volume we want. Our customers love us.”

'A lot of these certifiers just want to get paid.'

But he concedes that without any form of verification or certification system in place, he doesn’t have independent corroboration of his marketing claims that he and his customers are helping end poverty in Latin America.

“How do I verify it? I don’t know,” he said.

Marcus Stern reported from Tapachula, Mexico and Atlanta. With additional reporting by John Carlos Frey, Monica Villiamizar, Solly Granatstein, Marisa Venegas, Shawn Efran, Greg Gilderman, Neil Katz, Juliana Uncos, and Katie Wiggin in New York, Miami, Tapachula, and Montreal. Copy Editor: Richard H.P. Sia, Editor: Keith Epstein.