Baristas and coal miners: apples and oranges

ABC Fact Check has a piece looking at a claim by the Young Greens that “making lattes provides more Australian jobs than the entire coal industry.” The detail of the tweet included the claim that there were 86000 barista jobs compared to 52000 in the coal mining industry

The Fact Check Unit observed that the quoted firgure is for total employment in the cafe industry, not just barista. By comparing an estimate of the number of baristas to total employment in coal mining, the Fact Check Unit concludes that the claim is Incorrect.

There is an apples and oranges problem here. There are two reasonable ways to do this comparison

(a) Treat “barista” as shorthand for “someone who works in a coffee shop”. Then compare employment in the coffee shop sector, including “permanent, part-time, temporary and casual employees, working proprietors, partners, managers and executives within the industry” with employment in the coal mining sector, including managerial, professional and clerical staff, general trades workers and others.

(b) Define “baristas” to refer to the occupation of making coffee, and “coal miners” to refer to the occupation of “Drillers, Miners and Shot Firers”, that is, people whose occupation is extracting coal from the ground. Based on the proportion for mining as a whole, the latter is about 20 per cent of total employment in the mining industry.


Either approach, applied consistently, would imply that there are more baristas than coal miners. The fact check uses the first, broader definition for miners and the second narrower one for baristas. This is an apples and oranges comparison, and should be corrected.

38 thoughts on “Baristas and coal miners: apples and oranges

  1. It’s all very trivial, but I don’t see how you can treat barista as “shorthand” for something entirely different. The original claim was quite precise: “there were 86,200 full-time barista jobs in Australia compared to 52,000 jobs in the coal industry”. There’s an excellent discussion of the problems involved in gathering these kinds of statistics at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-11/fact-check-are-there-54000-jobs-in-thermal-coal-mining/11198150

    The larger point of course is that very few Australians depend on coal mining for their livelihoods. Its economic importance is as a generator of public revenue.

  2. unfortunately the apples and oranges are there in the original tweet – “making lattes” v “the entire coal industry”. The specific versus the general is part of what makes the tweet impactful, so the judge it on that basis isn’t unreasonable

  3. @Ken Lovell It doesn’t matter whether you use the shorthand version or not, as long as you are consistent.
    The Fact Check article uses “coal miner” as shorthand for “employee in the coal mining industry”, a category that includes managers, engineers, receptionists, truck drivers and many others.
    There are more baristas than coal miners, if both terms are interpreted to describe occupations, and more people employed in cafes than in coal mines/

  4. I agree, but the original claim didn’t say either of those things. It cited a precise number of ‘full-time baristas’ v ‘the coal industry’.

  5. Comparing a job classification with an industry. Precariat underpaid serfs compared with Big coal. Apples compared with oranges, that’s the ABC ‘balance’ at work for you. They know where to stand in such lean times, and daren’t go toppling over balance.

  6. @kenalovell No it didn’t. The claim was “making lattes provides more Australian jobs than the entire coal industry.” The reference to baristas was in small print, and was a trivial mistake, identical to the fact checkers reference to mining industry employees as “coal miners”

  7. But does “making lattes” include the people who work in my local coop that sells mostly biodynamic herbal infusions?

  8. In Spain, Teresa Ribera’s coal mining phaseout will cost €250 million, for about a thousand miners. The much bigger German phaseout will cost €40bn, for around 20,000 lignite miners. This gives a ballpark of €20,000 – €25,000 per miner. Australia has more coal miners, 37,800 at last count. €90 bn is a lot of money, though of course the details will vary in important ways. Germany is more focused on compensating companies, Spain workers (and rightly so).

    The US coal phaseout apparently costs €0 in compensation for the miners, but since the mining companies pass through Chapter 11 bankruptcy before they hit Chapter 7 and go out of business, a large volume of costs (pensions, health care, cleanup) are being smoothly passed on to the government or the unfortunate miners.

  9. There is a broader aspect to such apples and oranges comparisons. It relates to the issues of production versus consumption and necessities versus luxuries. Jobs are not of equal importance nor of equal long term utility for human personal civilization survival given the imminent catastrophe inherent in climate change, resource depletion . We all could survive without baristas. We all could not survive without viable energy sources. Certainly, coal is not the energy source we should be using. But producing solar and wind power and progressing the energy transition is the work we should be doing much more of.

    If our economy was working more healthily we would be producing more scientists, engineers, technicians, installers, maintenance workers, monitors and managers of renewable energy factories, systems and grids (along with more social, medical, life sciences workers, ecologists etc.). At the same time, we would be producing less baristas and less other jobs based on pointless or excessive consumption for ephemeral or even wasteful and destructive (supposed) utility. This would mean less coffee, less grog, less gambling, less sport, less entertainments and so on.

    If we don’t make these changes voluntarily with wise foresight they will be forced on us with much harder terms by empirical reality.

  10. James, Australia’s position is very different from Spain or Germany. As a low cost producer of coal that isn’t absolute crud and possibly the lowest cost producer of coking coal, Australia’s shutdown of its coal industry is likely to be much more gradual. While the falling cost of renewables is ready to destroy the economics of existing coal power, some of the last seaborne coal is likely to be mined in Australia. After all, China has a lot of new blast furnaces that run off coke. So our coal phase out should be more gradual and so less expensive and involve mine closures spaced out over time with a chance for unemployed miners to get jobs that result from natural attrition at mines that remain open.

    We just need to avoid insanity like opening new mines.

  11. Ronald: What will be the market for Australian thermal coal om 2030? Indian government policy is to eliminate imports. China had not said the same, but they just opened the $30 bn, 2,000 km Haoji freight rail line to transport coal from mines in the NW to power stations in the SE from domestic coal instead of imports.

    Coking coal will last longer, but when three major steel companies are building hydrogen DRI plants, it’s a safe bet that the trchnology works. Catalysers are falling in price, and there will soon be massive volumes of surplus wind and solar electricity at bargain prices (a cent or two per kwh).

    Australia certainly won’t have a coal industry in 2050. I suspect the crunch is due sooner rather than later, with half of coal production gone by 2030.

  12. Ross Gittins sums it up nicely when writing about “jobs and growth”:
    “What governments usually end up protecting in an industry isn’t its jobs, but its profits. For instance, when not in the hearing of North Queensland voters, Adani boasts about how highly automated its mine will be. Apart from the few years it takes to construct a mine, mining involves a lot of expensive imported machines and precious few jobs.”

  13. It’s a silly argument in any case. There are only 568 medical oncologists in Australia but (most people would agree) they do very valuable work. Even if you just look at their contribution to the economy it’s highly valuable.

  14. Ikonoclast has it right. Comparing a service industry to one that actually makes the country money is indeed a case of apples and oranges.

  15. “This would mean less coffee, less grog, less gambling, less sport, less entertainments and so on.”

    But what about the additional expenditure needed on grey smocks and undercover fun police?

  16. Historyintime,

    The lesson is that if we don’t discipline our appetites, nature will do it for us. And nature’s disciplining will be far more painful. We are using up the earth’s natural capital, which includes resources, bio-services and natural waste sinks, far too fast and/or beyond capacity. The obvious targets for a reduction in overuse are discretionary luxuries. But the modern attitude seems to be that we can indulge as much as we like and to hell with the earth’s natural systems. Nature bites back. Humankind is puny in comparison to the forces we are toying with on this planet. We need to operate within sustainable bounds. “To command nature we must obey nature.” – Sir Francis Bacon.

  17. I’m a coal miner and my wage lets me afford an overpriced cup of coffee in a toffee nosed establishment. But it’s my choice to pay it, and should we include the exploited workers in overseas areas where the coffee bean is grown by destroying rainforest areas. Lol. Think it’s a first world problem myself

  18. Slightly longer answer, James: Hopefully there will be no overseas market for Australian coal in 2030, but…

    India doesn’t much Australian thermal coal and there’s no good reason to think they ever will. But countries that currently import thermal coal and are unfortunately likely to still continue to import some in 2030 are:

    China
    Japan
    South Korea
    Taiwan

    There are two reason why:

    1. They are not likely to have replaced their coal generating capacity by then.
    2. There’s not a lot of competition for Australian coal.

    China could replace all Australian coal imports, but are unlikely to as it’s going to be cheaper to import Australian coal to coastal cities than get Chinese coal to them.

    If China does eliminate all Australian thermal coal imports that only represents one-third of Australia’s exports. Japan is the largest importer of Australian coal while South Korea and Taiwan import considerable amounts. Tragically, all intend to still be using thermal coal in 2030 and — particularly in South Korea — new coal capacity is still under construction.

    In the past Australia has exported coal for under $35 US a tonne in today’s money. This means as coal prices fall Australia is likely to maintain its position as a major exporter, although it remains to be seen exactly what will happen.

  19. Ants, February 16, 2020 at 9:28am, “the coffee bean is grown by destroying rainforest areas. Lol. Think it’s a first world problem myself..”

    Ants, Ikonoclast is correct. In part so are you correct, and moreover you are in kind, although that perhaps was unintended. There is only one world. Workers anywhere are part of humanity. Destruction of biodiversity in a localised region often cascades to adversely affect biodiversity on a grand scale. The wider biome provides vital services, eg., insects, without which humans anywhere cannot continue to live.

    Yes, Ants, we need to stop consuming coffee in order to prevent the globally occurring destruction of upwardly retreating, shrinking biological refugia on tropical mountain ranges. For similar reasons we ought cut out consumption of many many other treats, eg., the Arnott’s biscuits often consumed with coffee due to their palm oil content…

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/news/earth_climate/global_warming/

    Climate-driven farming ‘frontiers’ pose major environmental risks
    Global warming will making farming possible in regions important for biodiversity and carbon storage
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200212150139.htm
    Date: February 12, 2020 Source: PLOS
    Summary: Future farming in regions that were previously unsuitable for agriculture could significantly impact biodiversity, water resources, and greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

    The modeling results suggest that climate change will increase the global amount of land suitable for key crops by more than 30 percent, mostly in upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere and in mountains around the world. Farming these frontiers could pollute downstream water resources that serve 1.8 billion people. It could also decrease biodiversity in tropical mountains; the predicted frontiers overlap 19 global diversity hotspots, as well as critical bird habitats.

    In addition, farming of agricultural frontiers has the potential to release up to 177 gigatons of carbon naturally stored in frontier soils into the atmosphere. This amount is equivalent to more than 100 years’ worth of present-day carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., and its release could accelerate global warming.

    Scientists warn humanity about worldwide insect decline
    sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200210074240.htm
    They also suggest ways to recognize and avert its consequences
    Date: February 10, 2020 Source: University of Helsinki
    Summary: Insect declines and extinctions are accelerating in many parts of the world. With this comes the disappearance of irreplaceable services to humans, the consequences of which are unpredictable. A group of scientists from across the globe has united to warn humanity of such dangers.

    Engaging civil society and policy makers is essential for the future and mutual well-being both of people and insects. In addition to mitigating climate change, an important aspect of the solution involves setting aside high-quality and manageable portions of land for conservation, and transforming global agricultural practices to promote species co-existence….

    The results of recently published works make it clear that the situation is dire

    Habitat loss, pollution — including harmful agricultural practices, invasive species that do not encounter borders, climate change, overexploitation and extinction of dependent species all variably contribute to documented insect population declines and species extinctions.

    “With species loss, we lose not only another piece of the complex puzzle that is our living world, but also biomass, essential for example to feed other animals in the living chain, unique genes and substances that might one day contribute to cure diseases, and ecosystem functions on which humanity depends,” confirms Cardoso.

    merriam-webster.com/dictionary/refugium
    Definition of refugium
    : an area of relatively unaltered climate that is inhabited by plants and animals during a period of continental climatic change (such as a glaciation) and remains as a center of relict forms from which a new dispersion and speciation may take place after climatic readjustment

    If health promoting meat can be grown by an ecologically sound method in a vat, so be it for good coffee! Forget biscuits.

  20. @gwoshmi I’m always fascinated by the claim that growing coffee beans is a real job, but turning them into coffee isn’t. Ditto for construction workers who build hospitals vs nurses who work in them, and so on ad infinitum.

  21. @JohnQuiggin

    service industry jobs are not real jobs. The only real jobs are those where you make things, preferably with your bare hands.

  22. Work is the product of force by displacement. Or at least it is according to physics textbooks. Therefore, driving a semi represents far more work than than what those lazy brain surgeons do. They are almost useless as they specifically try to apply as little force as they can while displacing as little brain tissue as possible. This is of course why truck drivers are paid so much more than brain surgeons.

  23. @Smith 9: But that’s what baristas do – a cup of coffee is a thing, after all. It takes strong wrists to twist that portafilter into place, barehanded of course! Maybe we should reclassify them as manufacturing workers.

  24. Open cut mines are essentially quarries and the so called miners operate large machines which function with the assistance of onboard computers and the support of fitters, fuelers and a host of backup services.

    Similarly with a long distance truck driver – the unit is fitted out with gps, cruise control, bluetooth and the machine is operated by a host of computing devices, drive by wire.

    Any notion that these people are creative, that they make things “with their bare hands” is nonsense.

  25. Smith9, but equally rocket science is not brain surgery.

    And both operate on systems at a much less complex level than us poor muggins that write the software they depend on. Which is “hopefully” and “probably” all the way down… and I am too stupid to do the job I have, let alone do the work my employer wishes I did. But don’t worry, the robot guiding your brain surgeon is perfectly safe (you, on the other hand…)

  26. “Comparing a service industry to one that actually makes the country money is indeed a case of apples and oranges.”

  27. “Comparing a service industry to one that actually makes the country money is indeed a case of apples and oranges.”

    I am employed in a service industry. Many thousands of citizens of other countries pay organisations like my employer very large sums of money for the services that I and my colleagues contribute to producing and delivering. The total amount of income accruing to Australia as a result of this runs to some tens of billions of dollars per annum.

  28. Why should brain surgeons be paid well? Brain surgery is not rocket science.

    You’ve given away the punchline!

  29. As far as I know, it’s essentially only the Mint and the Reserve Bank that make the country money. I guess there are still a few private sector entrepreneurs clandestinely labouring away to supplement their work, but I prefer to believe the additional contribution is minuscule. Are the precautions taken less effective than I suppose? I imagine that entrepreneurs of that stripe can find more remunerative uses for their abilities in other lines of operation.

  30. Will coal have made us money when the full costs of the climate consequences are included? Those costs don’t go away with a new financial year or any kind of creative accounting; centuries and possibly millennia of paying them is what climate science tells us.

    It resists precise calculation of course, just as the costs of shifting to zero emissions resists calculation – which is why Morrison is trying it on with “we need to know how much going zero emissions will cost before we commit”; a calculation that almost certainly specifically excludes externalised climate costs.

    Middle of the road estimates of externalised costs for a ton of coal appear to exceed the current market price of a ton of coal – the costs to go to people in the future and spread across the whole world. (Say $40 per ton of CO2 by low estimates of Social Cost of Carbon and each ton of coal makes nearly 3 tons of CO2).

    But if somehow WE do okay (like we won’t be harmed by drought and heatwave and fire with 3 or 4 or 5 degrees added and international problems don’t spill over) but others bear the burden of costs so we are alright… does that make it alright?

  31. I realize I didn’t really make an point clear earlier. Australia has a large mining industry so when coal mines close down workers have an opportunity to get jobs in other mines. These could be remaining coal mines but also any other mine as many of the skills are transferable. This is very different from Germany which doesn’t have a lot of mining apart from brown coal and potash. It’s hard to tell, but their mining sector may be one sixth the size of Australia’s as a portion of GDP.

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