Source: Unsplash
Source: Unsplash

Today, we’ll talk about some issues surrounding the components that make up goal number 8 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As part of the SDGs, the target of goal number 8 is to achieve (by 2030) ‘sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full productive employment and decent work for everybody.’ Yes! It sounds amazing! Most importantly, thinking about the fact that access to jobs, fair income and equal work opportunities are crucial in the fight against poverty, goal number 8 appears to be spot-on.

How is this going to be achieved? We know businesses, large multinational corporations (MNCs), industries, and governments have a role to play. However, as individuals and citizens of the world, what role do we have to play? How can we contribute to achieve this goal? A lot can be said, but my passion steers me towards one direction: perhaps we may start by changing the way we think and what we consume.

But first let’s take a moment to explore six components of the goal. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), economic growth can be achieved by providing decent work and, in general terms decent work stands for:

• No child labour or forced labour
• Access to jobs
• Jobs with dignity
• Equality
• Fair income
• Safe working conditions

Decent work is productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equality, security and human dignity. It involves opportunities for work that deliver fair income; provide security in the workplace and social protection for workers and their families. But what are the implications behind these components?

The former General Director of ILO, Juan Somavia, said: “Decent work is at the heart of the search for dignity for the individual, stability for the family and peace in the community.”

In general terms, this suggests making global labour fair. How do we as individuals influence this? Consider this quick demonstration with chocolate: we all love chocolate, we buy it and consume it all the time, and for many special occasions. However, did you know that 80% of the cocoa that you consume comes from Africa and is harvested by children? Countries such as Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Ghana produce majority of chocolate in the world and 1.8 million children in those countries work in the cocoa fields (Slave Free Chocolate). Those countries have huge problems in child slavery, and children are vulnerable to brutal labour practices and have been trafficked from other countries that are in conflict zones to work in cocoa plantations. This essentially infringes on their human and basic rights to education and health.

According to the ILO there are some 168 million children that are currently living under slave-like conditions of forced labour, and a great part of that number comes from the production of goods that we consume daily in our lives such as coffee, cotton and chocolate. More specifically, the ILO estimates reveal that about 59% of child labourers aged between the ages of 5 and 17 work in the agricultural sector, 7% of them work in industries including mining, construction and manufacturing, and about 25.4% work in services including retail trade, restaurants and transport.

Thus, across our daily lives, one way or another, depending on what we buy, we may be promoting child labour. Auret Van Heerden, a labour-rights activist suggests that the responsibility does not only rest on MNCs and governments. We, as individual, need to play an active role in ensuring an ethical supply chain.  We need to engage in ethical consumption of the products we buy.

But here is where it gets tricky. Does engaging in ethical consumption mean poor families would enjoy basic rights but at the detriment of their income? Poor families in most developing countries largely rely on child labour in order to have access to basic necessities. Thus, without getting the kids out there to work, families may wallow in poverty, and suffer from significant hunger. As part of the campaign to promote the basic human rights of poor families and to eradicate child labour, advocates have argued that consumers need to steer clear from items produced under poor labour conditions. However, this may deny some families the right to eat.

At one point, I would have boldly declared: “I want a better world free of child labour. Watch what you consume!”

There’s a hidden dilemma in all this though. Do we choose products made under conditions of child labour to help poor families afford their basic needs; or do we uphold global standards for human rights, free of child labour. Which is the correct way forward?

What’s your grind?

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Here we are in Vietnam, in the small village of Di Linh. The past couple of days have been very busy, and the two young boys arrived again to pick me up at my little hotel. We start the morning by a small roadside food stand eating ‘pho’ as breakfast and planning the activities of the day. We then jump onto motorcycles and ride along the chaotic highways of the village just to arrive at another house for the first interview of the day.

I came to the Di Linh with the intention to study the coffee industry, one of the biggest agricultural industries in Vietnam and the world. Di Linh is the home of several coffee farmers who are responsible for large amounts of coffee production in Vietnam. Coffee, no matter how small a grain looks like, represents the second most traded commodity globally, and is one of the most loved and consumed grains. The passion for coffee around the world inspires me, and for the last few years, I’ve developed a keen interest in understanding the trends associated with its production, distribution and consumption. The story for the producers, is however, saddening.

Vietnam happens to be the second largest exporter of coffee in the world, and farmers here share similarities with coffee farmers in the world who are mostly of indigenous heritage and owners of a few acres of land. Coffee is their primary source of income and most family members participate in its production. However, conditions associated with production and sales make it difficult for them to afford their basic needs.

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In the last few years, Vietnam has attracted giant coffee roasters and processing companies such as Nespresso and Kraft. It appears though that coffee farmers have not benefitted enough despite these companies making significant profits. Put differently, coffee production is booming in Vietnam but for the farmer, it comes at high costs. Coffee farmers in rural areas, in an attempt to meet up with the growing demand for coffee, become vulnerable to environmental hazards. Exploitation of resources in order to meet the growing demand of the world has left these farmers with terrible environmental consequences that worsen their livelihoods.

‘Observing the life of coffee farmers, they appear to be in an endless poverty cycle with no way out. This phenomenon is almost identical everywhere; penniless coffee farmers, profiting brokers (intermediaries) and coffee roasters. The only difference between Vietnam and other coffee-producing countries is that coffee in Vietnam is pretty new’

In countries like Mexico, my home country, things are no different. A few years ago, National Geographic reported, how a fungus known as “la roya or rust” has been killing coffee plants across the major coffee producing states of Mexico and other countries in Latin America. Consequently, coffee production dropped by 70%, and this exacerbated issues of poverty for coffee farmers. Further, climate change issues and unfavorable trade agreements have negatively affected the welfare of numerous indigenous people farmers.

Limited government support to small scale farmers, the lack of sustainable practices, vulnerability to environmental changes, and lacking technology and technical support all present coffee farmers with significant disadvantages. The vast majority of coffee farmers depend (without choice) on intermediaries or ‘brokers’ offering prices for coffee which do not benefit the farmers. These challenges perpetuate issues of poverty.

Perhaps, about one in two people reading this article consume coffee. This suggests that we can make a difference. As consumers, we carry a huge responsibility. We need to be aware of the products and the brands we purchase. By opting for sustainable coffee and fair trade brands we can help coffee farmers out of poverty and preserve the environment. We can make a difference.