After water, coffee is one of the most consumed drinks by humans. The demand for coffee annually presents a significant growth in the world’s market, so its production intensifies in producing countries.
Coffee is best to cultivate in tropical areas such as Central America, parts of South America, and some regions of Africa. For some countries, it has become the main export product, as is the case of Nicaragua.
In Nicaragua coffee is called “the golden grain”, for the value it represents in the Nicaraguan economy. The entire northern part of the country is dedicated to the production of coffee, which is why many families work on different coffee plantations in the area. During the coffee season, the bean is harvested between September and February, when thousands of families arrive at the plantations to pluck the golden grain, including children and adolescents.
This type of work requires the so-called nimble fingers. Employers seem to find that the level of care required for this job is optimal not to women or men, but girls and boys.
The children start labor very young. Mothers carry them, often less than three years of age, on their backs, to go and work in the coffee plantation. By the time these children are able to walk, they are given the task of picking up the coffee that falls. Children and parents work together to pick up coffee beans.
In the beginning, children (being children), find the labour amusing and, when they get tired or bored, they just stop working. It all changes, however, when they reach the age of 10. It is around that age that picking up coffee beans stops being a game, and becomes an obligation. In this regard, young boys and girls are joining the same work as adults: little by little this workforce will increasingly acquire the skills needed for the job and will sometimes have similar demands to those of the adult workers.
Reality of child labor in Nicaragua
The Nicaraguan Constitution prohibits the work of children under the age of 14 and limits the work of young people between the ages of 14 and 17 to positions that do not endanger their health and safety. Despite this, traditional practices of employing children during the coffee harvest season remain prevalent. On the other hand, as international buyers increasingly demand certifications that prohibit child labor, Nicaraguan coffee growers exporting to international markets are looking for solutions to combat child labor on their plantations.
The Government of Nicaragua, together with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have launched education programs to discourage child labor on coffee plantations. However, despite some progress, according to ILO, more than 300,000 Nicaraguan children and adolescents, most of whom are between the ages of 10 and 17, work in agriculture, trade, services and mining to help their families survive.
Whilst efforts are being made in practice – as most of the major producers in the Nicaraguan coffee zone have already signed agreements to eradicate child labor – the reality is completely different. Children continue working in the different Nicaraguans coffee farms. Child labor is invisible in practice and, without an abiding contract, only a few receive payment for what they do. The rest only contributes to the work of the adults and the remuneration is received by the parents to help the household economy.
The law states that children have to study – not work. In theory, it is the responsibility of parents to cover all their basic needs. In reality, however, especially in rural areas where there are many single-parent-headed families, this becomes a utopia, as the income depends on the contribution these children make. Child labor has a huge cost for the children themselves and for the society since it keeps children away from schools and is an obstacle to the healthy development of their minds and bodies. Not only that but it perpetuates the cycle of poverty for the children concerned, their families and their communities. Without education, these rural children will probably be the poor of tomorrow.
Child labor in coffee plantations is hard to quantify. During harvest, all the family members fill the sacks. Therefore, it is not known how many kilos of coffee children actually gather in a day’s work. The work accomplished by the “companions”, as they are referred to, is added to that of the boss or day laborer, so that the work of children remains unrecorded, and discarded as mere “help.”
When questioned by supervisors of the Ministry of Labor and organizations that fight child labor, mothers argue that they take children to work because they prefer not to leave them home alone. Far from being a “bring your kids to work activity”, in the plantations, the children’s’ workforce is being exploited.
Moreover, apart from the different forms of work in the coffee plantations, children carry out a large number of “unpaid activities”. Those who stay over the day in the “work camps” are responsible for cleaning the room, washing clothes, caring for their younger brothers and sisters. Only a few children have the privilege of attending school, and, when they do, they alternate between other domestic tasks or assisting their parents.
The Government of Nicaragua and different NGOs are working to stop the child labor by strengthening prohibitive laws. What they seem to forget is the idiosyncrasy of the Nicaraguan rural population that don’t consider education as a means of development. The parents of many of these children working on the coffee farms are illiterate. They – like their own children – started working at the young age and are not aware of the harm and repercussions that a lack of education can have on a child’s life. Convergently, education is not only a passport to a better future. It is also the only way to stop this poverty cycle in Nicaragua.