Migration, crime or exhausting labour?Posted: March 6, 2011
They were glad of the work, said the official.
They were a band of young Nicaraguan men, running from the warehouse to the loading bay, each with a 69 kilogram sack of coffee borne on their backs. They do this for eight hours a day, with a short break every two hours. And they do it for $9 a day.
Sixty nine kilos is just on 152 pounds, nearly 11 stones. Six days of heaving unforgiving sacks up ladders, down ladders, from stack to lorry, earns $54. That’s about £33.20, at 61.5p to the $.
The warehouse and coffee processing plant near Matagalpa form one factory, employing up to 500 people at peak times. It operates around the clock, for six months of the year. Most of the workers are temporary; and when the factory closes in summer they have a gap of about three months before working as coffee pickers when the harvest starts in November.
The work options open to Nicaraguans are few and typically require great exertion. Workers see mechanisation as a threat. When we asked why this plant did not invest in fork-lift trucks, the official said the workers preferred labouring to no job at all. He said that about 100 women workers had lost their jobs when the co-op invested in mechanised coffee-bean sorting which replaced women sorters, whose quick eyes and nimble fingers were no longer required. The job losses hurt the local community.
Our group of Fair Trade protagonists was taken aback by the sight of human fork-lifts. As a career, it has a short life. By age 30 backs cannot take the strain, and the roar of the processing machinery will have damaged workers’ hearing. The sack-shifters wore support belts but not ear-protectors. These were available, said the official, but workers chose not to wear them.
The plant, Sol Café, belongs to the second-tier co-operative CECOCAFEN, to which 12 coffee-growing co-operatives in northern Nicaragua are affiliated. CECOCAFEN is Fair Trade certified, meaning that due attention should be paid to workers’ health and safety. Working as a human fork-lift amid ear-splitting noise may strike the visiting British and Irish group as unsafe and thus wrong, but wouldn’t it be worse to import machines and kick out the people? This is an ethical dilemma without clear-cut solutions.
The United Nations Development Programme reckons that 80% of Nicaraguans subsist on less than $2 a day. In this context, $9 a day is good pay, but the context is one we should be ashamed of. Even with the premiums accruing from the Fair Trade coffee market, the co-op cannot afford to pay wages high enough for workers to ever escape from poverty.
We were told that half a hectare of good coffee-growing land costs around $15,000.
A wage of $9 a day would never permit a labourer to start his own coffee farm. What of the few alternatives? Up to one million of the 3.615 million Nicaraguans aged 15 to 64 are migrant workers, chiefly in neighbouring Costa Rica. Crime is an option, particularly financial corruption — bribery and illicit siphoning of funds. Nicaragua in 2010 ranked 127 of 178 countries in the corruption index published by Transparency International, with a score of 2.5, compared with the 9.3 recorded for Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore at the top and 1.1 for Somalia at the bottom. Nearly three-quarters of the 178 countries scored less than 5, said Transparency International, drawing attention to huge scale of corruption across the globe. Wealthy nations’ insistence on cheap imports, facilitated by corporations’ power to dictate prices, is not exactly helpful.
As for Fair Trade, it provides jobs – but at least some of those jobs come with high risks to health, as we saw in the coffee processing plant. For the workers, though, it is all about earning a wage, any way they can.