What does your cup of coffee really cost?

An inside look behind your morning cup of joe in El Salvador.

A bag of coffee beans costs anywhere between 5 and 20 dollars, depending on the quality and the  brand. A regular cup of coffee bought at a coffee shop, around 2 dollars (we’re talking no-frills, just the coffee in a mug, hot and ready to drink). So let’s look for a moment at who was involved in getting you your morning pick-me-up. We start in a coffee finca, a plantation of coffee trees typically located on steep hillsides around the country, often in the cooler higher altitudes. These fincas are typically quite large and owned by someone who likely lives in the city and only occasionally visits the farm. So first we have a manager who oversees the finca, managing other employees on a day to day basis, who ensures the work gets done. There is quite a lot of work to be done before and after the harvest season: fertilizing the trees, adjusting the soil pH by adding calcium, digging holes to plant new trees, fighting against the newest plague (rust), and getting rid of the weeds.

But when it’s harvest time, all hands come out to work, down to the children who leave school to help their families earn some money. Coffee is picked by hand, partly because of the varying ripening times of the berries, but primarily because no machinery could easily maneuver on the steep slopes. It is difficult enough for humans to do it, never mind small children carrying baskets full of coffee berries. The pickers are paid $1.25 per basket of beans picked; a full basket should have 25 pounds of coffee. A typical worker can pick four to five baskets each day. So they pick 125 pounds of coffee and earn $6.25 for that day’s work. An average 8-ounce cup of regular coffee contains about a half ounce of coffee, which is equivalent to 112 coffee beans, or 56 coffee berries (as each berry contains two coffee beans). So if my math is correct, if a picker harvests five baskets of coffee berries each day, they are essentially harvesting 4,050 cups of coffee. That is about $8100 worth of the finished cup of coffee, assuming each cup is sold for an average of $2.00. So where does the other $8093.75 go? Part of it, of course, towards the wage for the finca manager that we already mentioned, whose average salary is $280 per month.

During the harvest season from October to April, with peak months being December and January, nearly 350,000 laborers come from all corners of the country to make extra money picking coffee. They walk long distances, and take buses, just for the opportunity to earn six dollars a day. Apart from the finca manager, the man who weighs the coffee is on salary as well, for those seven months of harvesting anyway. He earns an average of $140 per month and makes sure each picker has at least 25 pounds in his or her basket. Weighing the coffee is a tense event; often two scales are used and suspicions run high on both sides. Pickers could put rocks into the sacks of coffee to increase its weight and volume, while the scales could be calibrated inaccurately, giving a reading of 23 pounds when it should be 25 pounds, for example. The man who weighs coffee only does that; he has an assistant that records the weight and the number of the picker. The coffee pickers are paid every fifteen days.

Next we have the man who drives the coffee from the finca to the beneficio, the place where the coffee is cleaned and often roasted as well (depending on the beneficio). This man uses his own truck, typically a large one, and is paid by the amount of coffee he brings to the beneficio, by weight as well. He typically receives 8 cents per quintal he brings in, and he can bring as much as 150-170 quintals of coffee twice each day during the peak season (December and January). One quintal is equal to 100 pounds, so he is bringing up to 32,000 pounds of coffee, or over one million cups of coffee. And for that he earns $26 each day, which is an impressive amount compared to the pickers, but remember that he needs to deduct all the expenses for fuel and the truck repairs, etc. Additionally, this salary is not guaranteed for much more than one month of the year, and even at that, it’s only guaranteed if the pickers are picking and the weighers are weighing. The pickers bring their baskets to be weighed and they are consolidated into 150-pounds sacks. These sacks then have to be carried and loaded onto the truck, which is an additional job. This man picks up, carries, and stacks about 60 of these 150-pound sacs each day, and then rides with the truck to unload the coffee at the beneficio, for a daily wage of $7 during the harvest season.

When the coffee arrives at the beneficio, it must be sorted for quality. This job is done by one trained person who can sort the coffee beans expertly. He is paid $144 per month during the harvest season and sorts through an average of 200 quintales of coffee each day, or about $0.00008 per $2 cup of coffee. The coffee is then fermented to loosen the skin and help dissolve some of the flesh around the beans, and then they are washed before being sent to dry. This is a crucial step that needs an abundance of clean water and is overseen by one person that monitors the cleaning of between 100 and 500 quintales of coffee per day, depending on if it is peak season or low season. The coffee must come out of the process free from any other debris, husk, or flesh that would ruin the coffee flavor. This person is paid $220 per month, or about $0.005 of that $2 cup of coffee. The coffee is then removed from the cleaning process and spread out to dry by a man who scoops the wet coffee into a machine pulled by a small vehicle that spreads the coffee beans out into neat rows. He must manually scoop the coffee, and wet coffee weights 20% more than dry coffee, but scoop by scoop, he works to dry it out for $160 per month. During the peak season, he empties and spreads out about 10 pilas (holding sinks, where the coffee is cleaned) each day. One pila can hold 180 sacs of coffee, or 27,000 pounds of coffee (in the berry form). So daily, during the peak season, his share of that $2 coffee is $0.0000017. The coffee must be turned regularly, and this is done entirely manually by someone who pushes a rudimentary wooden broom-like instrument that turns the coffee while it dries. He walks back and forth under the sun all day for about $156 per month during the harvest season, each coffee grain needs 8 to 9 days in the sun before being fully dry. There are machines that can air-dry the beans in shorter time, but there’s something about the sun that makes the coffee taste even better. The machines ruin something that can be discerned by most coffee connoisseurs.

At night, the coffee cannot be left out in the straight rows because it could absorb the evening’s moisture. So the coffee must be pulled into piles and covered by cloth and plastic to protect it. And in the morning, the process is reversed. This job, for whatever reason, has fallen primarily to women, who earn $76 each month for the few hours they work in the morning and the evening. This green coffee (as in unroasted coffee, also called cafe de oro) is loaded into burlap sacs for transport to the coffee roasting facility. Burlap sacs are the best material to transport this coffee, and they are valuable commodities. A woman’s entire job is centered around repairing these sacs. She can repair about 40 sacs per day and is paid $156 per month for her work during the harvest season. A manager oversees all of the coffee’s movement from the time it enters the beneficio to the time it leaves. This person is responsible to make sure the amount leaving as green coffee is roughly equivalent to the amount that entered as coffee berries. He oversees the jobs of the previously mentioned employees of the beneficio and earns $220 per month. To keep the place running, the buildings together, and the lights on, the beneficio contracts a general maintenance worker and electrician. He is paid the full $250 per month, since he is not an official employee of the coffee finca.

The green coffee then goes to be cleaned of any remaining debris or husks, sorted, and weighed. This is primarily done by machines overseen by one or three young men. On any given day, 500 sacs of coffee go through the machines they run; at $150 per month, they see approximately $0.000019 of that $2 cup of coffee. It is monotonous work, watching the machines, watching the coffee, surrounded by booming noise all day. The coffee then goes through a more high-tech quality control system and into storage tanks to wait for exportation – either to local vendors or international buyers. Before being put into storage, samples are taken for roasting and testing, another quality-assurance step. This person is paid $275 per month and samples thousands of grains of coffee personally while sending 240 sacs of coffee through the high-tech machine each day. The coffee samples this person prepares goes to an official taste-tester and rater of coffees. There are only 36 such certified people in El Salvador, and their average salary varies widely. Generally, at a large coffee finca, one of these specialists will tests 50 to 60 distinct samples each day, and is paid per sample tested, or around $25 per day. High quality coffee can be exported for as much as $20 per pound, though $300 per quintal is the average price. But if the coffee stays in the country, it is also typically roasted at the beneficio as well. One person can roast 4,500 pounds of coffee per day and earn up to $400 per month during the peak season due to overtime hours.

The roasted coffee must then be packaged, and this is another job most commonly carried out by women. The average salary for packing roasted coffee is $184 per month, and about a dozen women could be employed in  this job at a single beneficio. The coffee then gets shipped out to coffee shops all around El Salvador, where baristas pour coffee for customers. At the nicest coffee shops, a barista can earn as much as $250 per month as a base salary, but if customers are generous, his or her salary can increase but as much as $100 per month. The rest of the coffee is exported; Japan, Central Europe, and Canada are the top countries that receive El Salvador’s coffee. While coffee is one of El Salvador’s largest exports and definitely largest industries, the majority of the money go into the pockets of those not directly involved with the growing, harvesting, cleaning, drying, testing, roasting, or packaging the coffee itself. It stays in the landowners, or perhaps the exporters. El Salvador has not yet joined the coffee cooperative movement, at least not in the true sense. The true farmers are seeing so little of the profits, and the system is keeping the wealthy elite comfortable in the elevated positions while continuing to oppress the working class. What could be done? Socialize all the coffee fincas? No, I do not believe that is the answer. But the laws of minimum wage and enforcement of labor laws are overseen by those who would directly lose profit if minimum wage increased, and the system is corrupt. Well, I did not intend to give a solution to the issue, just to raise awareness about who helps bring your daily cup of joe to your kitchen.

Note: these figures are averages for El Salvador only; they will vary widely around the world. The majority of information was taken from an article in El Faro, online news source, published on March 18, 2013.


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