Let’s say on a Sunday afternoon, the sky is cloudless and the sun is shining. You are brewing some hot coffee and smell the floral aroma. You can’t wait but pour a cup and sniff, noting a hint of honey chocolate. Sip a litte. You taste a a very fruity flavour akin to sweet berry and cinnamon. The feeling is light and smooth, with very fresh acidity. ‘Ah, a typical Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee!’, you think.
This is the most relaxing afternoon but for the book you are reading. The first few chapters talk about how the mandamiento (forced labour) system in Guatemala, South America, boosted the coffee export. When slavery was abolished in the early nineteenth century (at least nominally), the Guatemalan government imposed another form of slavery: debt peonage (attribute such a huge debt to workers, usually the local Mayans, that they could hopelessly pay in their lifetimes)
A simple search in Google reveals the continuing troubled history of coffee. Top in the list is a news concerning Colombian coffee growers who went on strike and staged demonstrations that met police force and resulted to 21 injuries. Another article, titled ‘A Day in the Life of a Coffee Worker’, reported a minimum $2.85 a day for a typical Guatemalan worker, i.e. a wage that can’t even allow a purchase of a Starbucks tall coffee.
As a coffee lover, these are troubling news for me. Alright, we know diamonds are bloody and we ‘ll equate cotton and sugarcane with black slavery. How about coffee?
The unstable global coffee price (that caused the Colombian strike above) and the reliance of it by many less – developed countries to earn foreign exchange ensure the subjugation of coffee growers under the whim of the market overlords. The global coffee price is, in turn, partly dictated by giant coffee corporations like Nestlé and Starbucks.
If I remember correctly, Howard Schultz, the current Chairman and CEO of Starbucks, has justified Starbucks policy in Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul on the ground that Starbucks purchases coffee at a price set by the major international coffee organisations. This is a faulty argument. It presupposes a condition when several gentlemen/gentlewomen meet in a golft club, know all the information about market, negotiate and sign the contracts. I doubt whether a South American or African peasant working for a wage not more than few dollars a day to support a family of 5 or 6 children can ever have a chance to meet Howard Schultz and discuss the coffee price with him.
Can we do something about it? Stop drinking coffee is not an option. Donation? Many moral philosophers said donation is not only a charitable act but an obligation and duty. Peter Singer, for example, said
‘We should prevent bad occurrence unless, to do so, we had to sacrifice something morally significant – only in order to show that even on this surely undeniable principle a great change in our life is required’.
Singer offers a very unconventional view but it’s not unproblematic. The causal relationship between my individual purchase of a cup of coffee and the hardships of the coffee workers can be quite tenuous because of many intervening events: the local taxation, processing costs of the coffee bean, negotiations by the international organisations, global competitions and global demands.
In other words, I did not cause the hardships of the coffee growers because of a host of other factors. If I am not the cause, then I do not have the duty to donate.
That’s not to say we don’t do anything; just that donation is not the best way of helping them. How about Fair Trade? I haven’t done any in-depth research but it seems to me the most desirable way of doing justice when what I paid can directly contribute to the improvement of the workers’ working conditions.
My invitation here is for anyone to offer any tentative suggestions to relieve the hardships of the coffee workers and to make drinking coffee more just.
And a final note, next times when drinking coffee, please be reminded of the sweat and labour of the coffee workers that could make a coffee quite ‘bloody’.