“Coffee business is a family business”- Farm manager in “Hacienda Río Negro”
The “Sistema de Trazabilidad Laboral Migratoria” (SITLAM) is a tech-based solution for the agricultural sector in Costa Rica that has allowed regularization, tracing and inclusion of indigenous workers and their families in an innovative and streamlined way. SITLAM started to operate as a system with three components. (1) A web platform for the government to register information at the border and issue an ID card in real time for migrant workers. (2) The SITLAM ID card has a QR code to help them track and access an array of services such as medical, social security and banking (3) Additionally, SITLAM provides an app for employers to register worker’s entries and exits. Most employers and workers have seen systemic improvements and reduced frictions since its implementation in 2020, as a result they have been using it for three consecutive years. However, SITLAM’s success story does not rely entirely on technology development – it is part of a whole ecosystem that facilitates regular and orderly migration for coffee harvests that rely on indigenous workforce from Panama and Nicaragua to maintain their exports. This ecosystem includes a legal instrument, a specific migration category, housing, transportation, and childcare provided by the employer.
LaMP TEAM REFLECTION:
As the last scoping trip of 2022, LaMP team went to Costa Rica to collect information and learn more about SITLAM. Our goal was to understand how this tech-based solution works in practice and what are the conditions for replicability in other industries, countries, and migration corridors as an occupation-based and streamlined model. The coffee sector has been a champion in SITLAM’s implementation and use of the system. The LaMP team visited two cities in Costa Rica. First, we went to San José to meet with public institutions including the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Agriculture; and then we had the opportunity to go to San Vito, in Coto Brus, a canton specialized in coffee production at the border with Panama where we were able to witness in real time the process and talked with local authorities, employers and workers. Learnings from this trip will help us think through replicability and best practice insights.
Coordinated efforts and activities among different public organizations, the technical assistance from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the private sector’s influence and the COVID-19 pandemic leverage were the key drivers to design and implement SITLAM. Every year, Costa Rica receives tens of thousands of foreign seasonal workers to support the coffee sector. Most of them come from Panama’s ethnic minority: the Ngobe Bugle. As a result of COVID-19 in 2020, they faced labor supply strain due to the border’s closure and temporary halt for sanitary reasons. SITLAM was the solution that emerged to solve this shortage and address political pressures from the coffee sector through the business association Instituto del Café Costa Rica (ICAFE). The system started as a multi-institutional coordinated effort between the IOM, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Migration Office; however, as a migratory status it now officially sits under the Migration Office.
There are context-specific features to highlight in this initiative, including positive attitudes around migrant workers, perfect circularity, family inclusion within the migration process and direct recruitment. A culture of migration is palpable in San Vito as the city was established by Italian migrants and now relies on indigenous migrants to work for annual coffee harvests. There is a long-standing flow of Ngobe Bugle workers to San Vito which are the preferred workforce for coffee producers. For example, some people have been working for 20 consecutive years in the same coffee farm. Furthermore, the local authorities have established a local labor migration policy that promotes a regularized setting for current and future flows. Another key element from this migration process is that it is perfectly circular: all workers come to work at the beginning of the coffee season and return home at the end of it. Family inclusion is also an important aspect of the coffee sector. Employers allow workers to bring their families, which results in the family earning more income, workers come for a longer time, and this increases the retention in a single workplace. Finally, we learned that the coffee sector recruitment process is based on employer-worker bonds, especially with community leaders that work alongside the rest of the community in the coffee field. There are minimum cases where intermediaries have been part of this process.
There is a lot of expansion potential and interest for SITLAM, looking beyond the agriculture sector in Costa Rica, thinking about a trinational system or replicability to other migratory corridors. Within the agricultural sector, other product farmers including palm oil, pineapple and banana have started using SITLAM for migrant workers from Nicaragua. One key difference from the coffee sector, as this one has a common investment fund managed by ICAFE to ensure social security for the workers. Other sectors such as transportation, construction, private security, and domestic work have shown interest in using SITLAM. The government, in coordination with IOM, is exploring the legal feasibility of piloting SITLAM in these sectors. Additionally, IOM is analyzing the feasibility of creating a trinational SITLAM for Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua, as the migration flows are frequent between the three countries. Moreover, other countries in Central America have approached Costa Rica to learn from this initiative.
Currently LaMP team is assessing different ideas for projects aiming to improve the current system in Costa Rica, ranging from new features in the system to incentives and mechanisms to promote a better use; or to replicate the system in other places and contexts around the region where circular migration schemes are in place. SITLAM has clearly shown that tech-solutions can drive positive impact by reducing frictions for different stakeholders, however a comprehensive evaluation for the three harvests in Costa Rica using SITLAM is needed to learn how this solution has changed the behavior of workers, employers and government and has helped in different productivity and social outcomes.