Roughly half of Americans drink coffee every day. Rarely do they think much about the people half a world away who picked the beans.
A coffee worker rests on the wooden planks that he sleeps on in a room shared with other workers on a plantation in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. | (Janet Jarman)
Workers travel to the highest point on Finca La Revancha, a coffee estate in Nicaragua, to begin picking coffee cherries. | (Janet Jarman)
"The work of picking coffee is demanding, literally back-breaking work," explains Janet Jarman, an American photographer who's been documenting coffee workers around the world for almost two decades.
On a typical coffee plantation in Mexico, Nicaragua, and many of the other countries where the desirable crop is produced, the work begins before sunrise. Coffee pickers rise early to traverse steep hillsides where the coffee plants grow and then spend up to 10 hours in sweltering heat or pouring rain collecting the red cherries from which beans will later be extracted. They'll eventually climb down the mountain carrying 100 pounds or more of these berries on their backs.
Pickers can also encounter serious health dangers: For instance, the mosquitoes that buzz about the dense vegetation where the berries grow have been known to carry diseases like dengue, malaria, or even Zika.
Coffee labor is often performed by migrants who travel from poorer parts of the continent to find work on the plantations. The harvesting period lasts from roughly November to February, so workers either leave their homes for many months at a time or take their entire families with them. They eat and sleep on the estates, oftentimes in squalid conditions. "In the migrant bunk houses, which are common throughout the coffee lands, workers have very little privacy and often lack access to toilets, potable water, or a place to keep their belongings safe," Jarman says. "Some farms offer better food than others. One group felt lucky to be on a farm that offered more than just rice."
One plantation can employ over 600 workers at the height of harvest, though sizes vary. Workers' ages, too, span a very wide range: Jarman met men in their 60s doing the taxing work of collecting the fruit and hauling it back. It also wasn't uncommon to see parents and children doing the same work together.
Guatemalan migrant workers heat their breakfast on a coffee farm in Chiapas, Mexico. | (Janet Jarman)
Unsurprisingly, these vulnerable seasonal laborers are often exploited. Some estate owners withhold pay until the last day of the season, Jarman says, and then refuse to pay the full amount owed.
At one estate in Chiapas, Mexico, the coffee pickers earned about 80 pesos daily depending on the amount of berries they brought back. That translates to about $5 a day, a higher rate than attainable in Guatemala, where many of the migrants hailed from.
Workers wait in line to receive their payments. | (Janet Jarman)
Coffee workers stand in line to get breakfast. | (Janet Jarman)
Jarman sees her visual documentation of coffee labor — the real images that show just how strenuous and oftentimes inhumane the work can be — as a crucial step toward creating more conscious consumers, particularly in the West, where the demand for coffee continues to grow rapidly. "Photographs that reveal the social and environmental impacts inherent in the production of one of our favorite commodities may not be as welcome, but they are no less important."
Jarman, who lives and works in Mexico, sees the rise of fair trade labels as a move in the right direction, particularly ones like Fair Trade Certified, which is working to ensure that the premiums paid for the more socially conscious coffee go directly back to the workers who produced it.
"Coffee beans do not effortlessly arrive on the grocery store shelf," Jarman says. "If little by little, we can start to understand the backstory of the products we consume, we can begin to make a much needed global social shift towards creating healthier consumption systems that focus on long-term vision instead of short-term gain."
Despite all the struggle these workers face, Jarman says she encountered a lot of people who took great pride in their craft, particularly those who ran and worked smaller farms. A lot of these people "consider growing coffee to be a true art."
"Many producers and workers want their stories to be told," she says. "I vividly remember one Nicaraguan producer … [He] once told me: 'I want people to drink our coffee while imagining the family that gave them these beans through their labor.'"
After a long day of picking cherries, coffee workers watch a popular telenovela on a community television. | (Janet Jarman)
Editor's note: This article originally inaccurately characterized the duration of Jarman's career, and the ages and origins of various coffee farmers. It has since been corrected. We regret the errors.
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