No pickers, no coffee: How Covid threatens Colombia’s harvest

This article by Manuel Rueda (BBC News) focuses on Colombia’s Antioquía region, bordered on the north by the Caribbean coast.

For almost four decades the Santa Isabel estate has been growing coffee and roasting it on its premises with machines powered by water and coal. But production could fall this year at the massive farm, which covers a steep mountain that is almost entirely carpeted with coffee bushes.

Coffee pickers have become harder to hire amid the coronavirus pandemic. Low prices for beans mean there is not much money to lure more workers by offering higher wages. “If we cannot get more workers we could lose some of our crop,” says Ángel García, the farm’s manager. “The beans will fall and rot on the ground,” he explained, as a crew of about 50 workers made their way up a slope covered in 6ft-tall (1.8m) bushes.

Santa Isabel – which has 900,000 coffee bushes – is one of many farms in the Colombian province of Antioquia that is struggling with labour shortages this year.

The province, home to the city of Medellín, needs around 32,000 coffee pickers from other parts of the country each year to collect its harvest, which takes place between September and December.

But it currently has a deficit of 7,000 coffee pickers, according to Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers. Similar labour shortages affected coffee farms in Costa Rica earlier this year. [. . .]

To prevent outbreaks and make the job safer for coffee pickers, farms in Colombia have taken bio-security measures that include adding hand-washing stations and temperature checks. Some of the larger farms have also expanded their dormitories or added tents so that their workers are more spaced out, with their bunk beds now placed two metres apart. [. . .]

Physically demanding and little security

Coffee pickers in Colombia are paid about $0.15 (£0.11) for every kilogram of beans they collect. On a good day an experienced coffee picker can make around $30 a day, gathering 200kg of beans. It is three times as much money as what a worker on the national minimum wage makes. But the job is physically demanding and does not provide a fixed income or health insurance.

Fernando Morales de La Cruz, an expert on the coffee industry who directs the Café for Change Initiative, says that labour shortages will continue to be a problem until “the business model on which the global coffee industry operates is changed”.

Mr Morales de la Cruz points out that coffee currently sells for around $2.40/kg in global markets, or less than what it was selling for in 1983, when coffee-growing nations stopped imposing export quotas.

He says that a few companies – including Starbucks and Nestle – are purchasing most of the coffee in the world and keeping prices low thanks to their bargaining power.

For wages to improve significantly in the industry, wholesale prices for coffee beans would have to hover around $12/kg, Mr Morales de la Cruz, who is also a human rights activist, says. He argues that this big hike in prices could be covered, partly, by charging consumers an additional 10 cents for every cup of coffee bought at cafes or restaurants. [. . .]

Read full article at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55172034

[Photo above by Simón Echavarría.]

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