Uncovering child labour in our supply chains

Feb 17, 2021
Well before the global pandemic, I met “Elena”, a 10-year old girl picking premium coffee on a mountain slope in Guatemala. She worked full time and didn’t go to school, filling basket after basket beside her family. Because if she didn’t, they wouldn’t earn enough to make ends meet. It struck me then that this was her likely future. And the cycle would continue when her own children would one day join her in the field. 

It wasn’t fair. And I became determined to find out how coffee travels from Elena’s hands to major coffee brands. The following pictures piece together the supply chain from plantations to the export warehouse of a major international company. It wasn’t possible to follow Elena’s beans exactly, but it reveals how child labour is so easily hidden in our daily cup of coffee and many other products we consume every day.

Inside the coffee supply chain

a young Guatemalan girl picks coffee“Elena”, 10, picks some of the ripe coffee at a plantation.
a group of children and youth sit in the back of a red pickup truck“Elena”, in the back of a truck with other coffee workers and harvested coffee fruit following a day of picking. The coffee is taken to a mill where it is weighed to determine what workers get payed.

a boy washes coffee fruit at a mill in GuatemalaRipe coffee from surrounding plantations is then washed at a mill.

Washed coffee fruit is then laid out in the sun to dry.Washed coffee fruit is then laid out in the sun to dry.

a hand holding sun-dried coffee beans.Sun-dried coffee beans.

Sacks of dried coffee beans loaded on a truck and taken down the roadDried coffee beans are then loaded on trucks and taken down the mountain.
Coffee beans delivered for temporary storage at an intermediary warehouse.Beans are delivered for temporary storage at an intermediary warehouse. 
Sacks of coffee beans are delivered to a large regional warehouse on a red pickup truckCoffee is then delivered to a large regional storage facility. 
Stacks of coffee bean sacks piled high in a warehouseInside the regional warehouse owned by a multinational coffee conglomerate. Can you spot Elena’s beans?
the loading bay of a warehouse where sacks of coffee beans are loaded onto transport trucksFrom the regional warehouse, beans are loaded on trailer trucks to be exported internationally. 

How to end child labour in Canadian supply chains

Pressures to cut margins often move all the way back in the supply chain from retailer to farmers. The result is poor pay for coffee workers that perpetuates poverty widens inequities and forces parents to put their children to work. Cheap labour provided by children like Elena also exact a cost on their childhood, coming at the expense of their health, well-being and education. 

Following the coffee supply chain in Guatemala revealed just how hard it is to trace coffee beans back to the girls and boys who pick them. The issue is complex, but there are solutions that work. To end child labour in a responsible and sustainable way, farmers, workers, businesses, governments and NGOs all need to work together. And Canadian consumers have a vital role to play too. Learn more and get involved.

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