A Day in the Life of a Coffee Worker (Participation)

A Day in the Life of a Coffee Worker

Profile of Working Conditions at a Guatemala Plantation

The following information is based on interviews conducted by USLEAP (then the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project) staff in Guatemala at the San Sebastian coffee plantation outside of Antigua in February 1997.  More recent surveys and anecdotal reports indicate that there has been little improvement in working conditions for most coffee workers in the region.

Number of workers on the plantation:

Permanent: 100 families, about 550 people, most of whom have lived on the plantation all their lives.

Temporary: 500 workers and family members for the harvest season that begins in October and ends in March.


Legal minimum wage: $2.85 a day

Wage needed to meet essential needs: $8 a day, $240 a month for a family of five in rural areas.

Permanent workers: $2.33 a day plus periodic overtime; monthly wage of $70 to $100

Temporary workers: The plantation pays $2.50 for each 100 pounds of coffee berries picked. A family can pick between 50 lbs and 300 lbs a day, depending on how many family members are working and whether the picking is done in the middle of the harvest when berries are plentiful or at the beginning or end when they’re not.

Workers older than 12 are also given, per day worked:

* 2 ounces of beans, and

* 4 ounces of corn.

Working Family, Example #1:

Man and 9-year old son picked 80 pounds on Feb. 14, 1997, earning $2 plus 4 oz. beans and 8 oz. corn.

Working Family, Example #2:

Family picks 50 pounds on Feb. 20, earning $1.25, plus beans and corn.


Working Family, Example #3:

Eight-member family works all day; bean and corn are provided only for the four members of the family older than 12 years old.


Temporary workers start work between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. and work until 4:30 p.m.; permanent workers work eight to nine hours, with a lunch break of an hour or 90 minutes.


Temporary workers live in everything from large, open-aired one-room long-house-type structures holding up to 70 people to lean-tos of plastic and wooden sticks. Permanent workers live primarily in small, dirt-floored homes of wood or cinder blocks for which they pay rent, although no worker interviewed knew how much rent was being deducted from his/her pay.


None is provided or available for children of temporary workers; a primary school through 4th or 5th grade is available on the plantation.


An inadequate number of latrines are provided for temporary workers, so some workers must use the shoulder of the road near the living area as a toilet. Fly-infested human feces observed 20 feet from cooking area.


No protective equipment provided to workers; waiting period that is required before workers reenter an area that has been sprayed is sometimes ignored. One supervisor said that safety precautions were usually ignored, e.g. spraying near drinking water or near houses.


Health insurance provided, in accordance with the law.


7 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a Coffee Worker (Participation)

  1. It is sad and extremely sobering to see that this is happening. I feel like in America we talk bout how bad the restaurant business is. The work conditions are sometimes dirty and how they are getting underpaid and getting our tips taken out of their paychecks. Then you read stories like this about people that work on Guatemalan plantations and you kind of have to take a step back and think that as a restaurant worker they in America they have it pretty good compared to making $2.50/every 100 pound and come corn and berries. It is eye opening to see that we complain about our work conditions when we should really look at it in perspective to other countries.

  2. This article really broke my heart and made me realize how lucky I am to live in a nice house, have a financially stable family, not be hungry, receive an education, be healthy, and to not spend my childhood working. While I was reading, I kept thinking how the life of a coffee worker on the plantation is extremely similar to the life of a slave who lived on a plantation in the south. The only differences between the two are that slaves were not paid or were paid less than present day coffee workers, slaves were beaten and tortured, and slaves didn’t receive health insurance. Also the coffee workers choose to stay on the plantation while slaves had no choice. The fact that the coffee workers don’t even know how much is deducted from their pay for housing is very unfair. They work way too many hours and way too hard to only receive less than the legal minimum wage of $2.85 per day. If we think that restaurant workers are mistreated in the United States then what does that say about the treatment of the coffee workers in Guatemala?

  3. The life that these families lead working on the coffee plants in Guatemala is potentially all that they could ever know. Because the workers earn such low wages and the kids start working on the plants at such a young age the parents will have no way to change their lifestyle and the kids won’t have an education to grow up and do something else with their lives. Not providing any education for these children is subjecting them to a life that they didn’t choose. The living situation for these workers in horrible and extremely saddening. The unethical treatment of the workers and their families can be seem from the wages of $2.85 per day, the sanitation issues, the lack of education, and the gruesome hours.

  4. I think this is really an eye-opening read for many people. Yes, we all understand to some degree that the situations in other countries are worse than that of the U.S., but to see it broken down in numbers and examples is a completely different experience. Even just looking at the sanitation and housing options is enough to make people see something is wrong; however, if you look closer you can see that every part of these workers’ lives are a constant struggle. The lack of education and the rent issues to them may not even seem like problems because they have to fight to get the essentials to survive every day.

    It, very loosely, reminds me of the activity we did in class trying to make an impossible budget. We had to remove certain things in order to attempt to make only the essentials work- and we never considered emergency situations like medical situations (or maybe some groups had that).

  5. Much like “Behind The Kitchen Door” this article provides us with insight of how so many companies/resturants and even farmers are failing to provide fair wages, or safe and healthy working conditions to their workers. It shows that we really need to educate ourselves to where and who is behind providing us with the food/beverages that we consume each day. In the late 1990’s Starbuck like many other companies involved in fair trade stated that they were willing to assist in fair labor laws and child rights. We have seen little improvement. Even though a large amount of the coffee farms are owned and operated by Central American farmers, I am sure that half the the coffee beans produced come to the US. I traveled to Guatemala in August, 2011 and it is a harsh reminder of how fortunate many of us are. Therefore I stand by Saru Jayaraman’s belief that it is a “Call for Action” to provide fair wages and adequate living conditions to the millions of workers that work to pick, prep, cook, serve and clean the foods we eat.

  6. I think that it would be so hard to go to work each and every day and work hard, knowing that you still are not making enough. Each week and month you are making as much as you can, working as much as you can and still would not be able to make ends meet. Waking up to go to work early and not being able to support your family would be very difficult.
    These are mind blowing conditions and statistics in the article. Some are gross like the lack of sanitation and the bad housing situations. The hours are long and I would imagine it is hot there. All of these things are bad conditions, but I honestly think the education aspect is the worst. The system seems like a never ending cycle because children do not go to school they start working before they are 12 years old. There is no way they can escape their situation because they have to help their families make money as soon as they physically can. If they do not then their family will not survive.
    I am curious also to see how well their health insurance really is and if it is used correctly in the plants. There was not much information provided in the article about the health system besides it is required by law and that does not necessarily mean those laws are followed.

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