Grounds of sorrow,
grounds for joy.
By Aparna Datta
“Some Coffee Beans May Also Be Tainted”.
Triggered by this Knight Ridder article published on June
24, 2001 the coffee industry worldwide is currently in soul-searching
mode. The article was a sequel to a series titled A Taste
of Slavery, carried in May 2001, exposing the rampant use
of child slave labour on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast.
“Chocolate isn’t the only American staple tainted
by slavery. In addition to being the king of cocoa, Cote d’Ivoire
is the world’s fourth-largest Robusta coffee grower…The
two crops often are grown together, so the taller cacao trees
can shade the coffee bushes…As with cocoa, there’s
no way to tell whether a shipment of coffee beans contains
beans picked by slaves or those picked by paid workers,”
wrote journalist Sumana Chatterjee.
Thus was born a cause celebre, enough for the New York-based
Tea & Coffee Trade Journal to publish, in its issue of
January 20, 2002, an article titled “The Plight of Coffee’s
Children”, that discusses “various aspects of
the problem and root causes of child labour in coffee”.
A sequel, “will look at the steps being taken by industry
players, governments, and international agencies to…
ensure that coffee fields around the world are free of exploitative
As the editorial in the Jan/Feb issue says, “The slightest
insinuation that any child labour, slave or not, taints coffee
beans could taint the consumer’s taste for the product.
How many times have major manufacturers been boycotted for
things they were not responsible for or had no control over?
Therefore it is imperative that we as industry members know
Hmm. So what’s all the fuss about? The coffee community
and industry observers in India might well be forgiven for
viewing this emerging issue in ethical shopping in bemused
wonder. For it’s common knowledge that there’s
no child labour on coffee plantations in India. Period. But,
just as growers and exporters have had to get savvy on the
issue of environment-friendly coffee, could they now have
to contend with another possible demand from buyers –
“Certified – no child labour”?
No doubt the article focuses on the conditions prevailing
primarily in the coffee regions of Africa and Central America
(log on to www.teaandcoffee.net for the full text). No mention
of India, and therein lies the rub.
So as not to get tarred with the same brush greater awareness,
about the enlightened labour standards on Indian coffee plantations,
is imperative in international circles. The coffee fields
of India, far from being the killing fields of child slave
labour, are instead oases of gainful employment with relatively
superior standard of living indices. Due recognition of our
positive labour practices could create a competitive edge
– getting the good word out could yield yet another
ace for Indian coffee.
From the late 1820s, the coffee plantations in Southern India
took shape in a distinctly benign, developmental mode, in
contrast to other coffee producing countries where the intent
was more exploitative. R H Elliot, in his book Gold, Sport
and Coffee Planting in Mysore (1898) referring to the economic
changes in the forty years of his planting experience, observes,
“And this progress…has benefited all classes,
and the labouring classes by far the most of all. In 1856,
the pay of a labourer was 2 rupees 4 annas. It is now (in
1893) six to seven rupees a month, and a labourer can live
on two rupees a month…in India it means the creation
of a social and ever wide-spreading revolution. For when in
India capital is introduced, and employment on a large scale
is afforded to people, the poorer of the peasant classes are
at once able to free themselves from debt… the local
labourer is almost a thing of the past, for he has taken to
agriculture and coffee culture. Field after field, and village
after village, has thus been irrigated by that capital for
which India thirsts…enabling land to be more largely
and fully developed…”
While British pioneers may be largely credited with the progressive
character of coffee development in India, another factor is
that of good governance. The heartlands of the early planting
industry were in the then kingdom of Mysore, widely acknowledged
as one of the best-governed princely states, and Coorg, administered
by the British till Independence. Even in the first hundred
years of organized planting, the enlightened policies of the
government, coupled with the commitment of private planters,
laid the basis for the enduring institutions in the coffee
Soon after Independence, The Plantations Labour Act of 1951
gave a legal framework to the terms of employment. The Act
is considered exemplary, even today, far exceeding the labour
standards in coffee lands anywhere else in the world. It provides
for health, welfare, including recreation, education and housing,
the hours and limitation of employment, and leave with wages.
Significantly, the Act explicitly prohibits “employment
of young children”, defined as under twelve years. Traveling
through the coffee regions, the morning faces of uniformed
children going to school is a recurring sight, not children
out in the fields.
In truth, the coffee plantations of India are evolved socio-economic
entities. However, the statutory requirements, socially responsible
as they are, come with a price tag. Coffee growers abide by
the regulations, and absorb the social costs, irrespective
of the fluctuations in world coffee prices, which have now
reached historical lows. With the developed countries upping
the ante on environment and labour at the WTO, this is one
export sector where India comes through looking good on both
counts, and deserves to be identified and acknowledged on
its own merit.
So, how does the Indian grower distance himself from the
rest of the pack on the issue of child labour? Further, could
the perception of Indian coffees be enhanced based on the
positive labour policies? Every origin has a bundle of attributes
– could labour welfare be treated as a parameter in
coffee evaluation? How can this translate into tangible benefit
in terms of better prices? Could the Indian grower lobby for
a form of “labour credits” a la emissions trading,
and get the foreign buyer to actually put his money where
his mouth is?
For starters, growers and exporters could shift the paradigm
from ‘no child labour’ to ‘labour welfare’
and build in the feel-good facts into their presentations,
much the same way as ‘shade-grown’ is now an integral
part of the pitch on Indian coffee. Clearly, it is a point
of differentiation, and an opportunity to carve out a niche
for Indian coffee solidly grounded in our fine traditions.
Never did a cup of Indian coffee seem so ‘well balanced’,
or more potent.
© Aparna Datta
Published in The Economic Times,
India’s largest circulated business daily, on March