By ERIN MILLER
The U.S. Department of Labor found violations at every coffee farm they inspected last year as part of a “snapshot” look at the Kona coffee industry, Wage and Hour Division Honolulu District Office Director Terence Trotter said Friday.
“Several employers seemed to think coffee pickers were independent contractors so they weren’t overseeing them,” Trotter said.
The department fined seven coffee farms and labor contractors $42,000 for violating labor laws, including failing to pay at least minimum wages to coffee pickers. Five companies must also pay back wages totaling $63,000 to 150 employees. A farm labor contractor found to have violated child labor laws — an inspector saw children as young as 5 picking coffee cherry — paid a $16,000 fine.
An independent contractor must have a significant investment in his own business, Trotter said. Coffee pickers’ investment is usually a bucket to hold the coffee cherry, if that, he added. Some farms even provide the bucket.
Trotter said the Labor Department decided to check farms, with surprise inspections, to see if the farms were following labor laws, and to see what level of understanding coffee pickers and farm employees had of their rights. Migrant workers might not know what their rights are, he added.
The Kona Coffee Council responded well to the investigation, drafting a code of conduct for farms outlining their response that could be a model for other agricultural industries, Trotter said.
The council represents 170 farmers, processors and others in the industry.
Kona Coffee Farmers Association President Cecilia Smith said Friday was the first she learned of the violations. On her farm, she pays 55 cents a pound for coffee picking, with pickers easily getting 15 pounds an hour — $8.25 an hour — on low coffee yield days, and closer to 25 pounds an hour on busier days.
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