Fair Trade Falls Short When It Comes to Hired Farm Workers

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
CC BY 4.0. Wikimedia Commons – "During harvest time cocoa farmers need all their time and support of employees to separate the cocoa beans from the pots."

But this doesn't mean we should give up on fair trade certification.

A 'fair trade' symbol is meant to reassure shoppers that the people who made or produced an item were paid fairly for their work. It signifies oversight, accountability, and an annual fund that is used by a community to improve its infrastructure. Over the years, fairtrade (or Fair Trade, as it's known in the United States – the two are different certifying bodies) has been shown to improve wages, community participation in decision-making, gender inequality, and environmental stewardship. All in all, it's a great thing.

But there are some ways in which it falls short. New research out of Cornell University has found that, while Fair Trade benefits farmers in Latin America and Africa, these benefits do not get passed on to their hired helpers. Temporary farm workers, many of whom are immigrants from neighboring countries and not members of the communities in which they labor, are paid the same low wages, regardless of a farm's status.

Agricultural economist Eva Meemken led the research. She traveled to 50 different cocoa-producing regions in Ivory Coast, half of which were Fair Trade-certified and half that were not. Meemken observed that most farms hired extra temporary workers during harvest time, while 60 percent hired additional longer-term workers (an average of 2.4 workers per farm) who received cash wages and a share of the harvest. Many of these workers were from Burkina Faso or Togo, unable to speak the local language or even any French.

From the study's abstract, published in Nature Sustainability,

"Fairtrade improves wages and reduces poverty among cooperative workers, but not among farm workers, even though the latter are particularly deprived... At the farm level, inspections of labour standards are more costly, difficult and rare. Thus, Fairtrade hardly affects traditional employment modalities at the farm level even when farmers themselves benefit from certification."

The takeaway from this is not that Fair Trade (or Fairtrade, depending on which certifying body you're assessing) is failing, but rather that there is room for improvement. This is something that the certifiers are trying to do. Fair Trade USA told NPR that it is

"upgrading its standards to require that workers 'have access to personal protective equipment, housing, and drinking water of equal quality to that of the farmers themselves.'"

While the study's results may be disappointing to some, I think it should be acknowledged that Fair Trade is already doing tremendous work and cannot be expected to fix every problem immediately. The developing world in which it operates is complex, vast, remote, rife with lack of education, and hindered by minimal access to technology. If anything, this study provides a new focal point. (Read: It's not fair to bash Fairtrade)