It's Not Fair to Bash Fairtrade

Promo image. Fairtrade Deutschland

Fairtrade is a controversial topic right now. A new study, conducted by the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, found that poor agricultural workers in Uganda and Ethiopia have not benefited as much as they should from working on Fairtrade certified farms. These small-scale growers of coffee beans, flowers, and tea receive extremely low wages that are, in some cases, even lower than those of non-Fairtrade certified growers.

“Wages in other comparable areas and among comparable employers producing the same crops but where there was no Fairtrade certification were usually higher and working conditions better. In our research sites, Fairtrade has not been an effective mechanism for improving the lives of wage workers, the poorest rural people.” (Christopher Cramer, one of the study’s authors, The Guardian)

This study is getting significant attention because Fairtrade International is a high-profile organization that has been working for better labour rights since the late 1980s. Fairtrade works with 1.24 million farmers and workers in 70 countries and covers a wide range of commodities. It has also been recognized by ISEAL as “one of 7 organizations that have reached the highest standards for defining ethical trade.”

To paint it in a bad light is a big deal. It’s also unfair.

The whole purpose of Fairtrade is to eradicate the discrepancies in working conditions and wages that this study has unfortunately revealed in two countries, but that doesn’t mean that Fairtrade is failing everywhere. The organization has a great track record of making farmers’ lives better, as other studies have shown. Gottingen University found that farmer incomes on Fairtrade certified farms in Uganda have risen by 30 percent. A study by the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) found that women and children particularly benefit from the better infrastructure paid for by Fairtrade premiums. The same study, which was commissioned by the U.K. Department for International Development, concluded that Fairtrade and other certification bodies contribute significantly to tackling poverty.

It’s important to keep in mind that Fairtrade works within a very complex world. It faces tremendous poverty, a changing climate, gender inequality, fluctuating markets, societies that condone child labour, and human greed that always wants the cheapest deal and doesn’t want to pay a fair price for it. There’s only so much Fairtrade International, as an overseeing organization, can do at one time, although it is constantly trying to improve and strengthen its network of equality.

The SOAS study looks closely at temporary, occasional workers, particularly uneducated women who are divorced or separated and forced to take whatever work they can get, which Fairtrade agrees is an issue that has not been comprehensively addressed. Up until now, most of Fairtrade’s attention has been given to smallholder farmers, but now the temporary wageworkers on those farms must be the next focus.

Fairtrade takes issue with the fact that the study’s research on non-certified farms covered workers on a variety of farm sizes and large plantations, whereas the Fairtrade sites were all smallholder cooperatives, making for a skewed representation. The Huffington Post reports that “the one Fairtrade certified plantation included in the study withdrew from certification shortly after the SOAS research was conducted, while the 'non-certified' Ethiopian flower plantation cited has in fact been Fairtrade certified since 2012.”

Fairtrade certified farms are always small, and that is why a major split occurred in January 2012 between FLO Cert (the third-party international certifying body that Fairtrade owns for auditing and certifying farms) and Fair Trade USA. The latter broke away because it wanted to be able to certify huge coffee corporations (thanks, Starbucks!) and not be limited to buying from the small, farmer-run cooperatives that FLO Cert and other international fair trade organizations continue to support.

Harriet Lamb, CEO of Fairtrade International, provides this important reminder: “The FAIRTRADE Mark does not mean that the product comes from a few hand-selected sites where conditions are perfect. It means that Fairtrade is working for a better deal alongside vulnerable farmers and workers as they tackle very real problems in their communities.”

A poll conducted by The Guardian found that 68% of readers say they’ve lost faith in ethical logos as a result of this study, but I’m with the other 32% that still believes in Fairtrade. Hopefully the SOAS study can be used to improve and strengthen Fairtrade’s methods, repair the damage done to African temporary workers, and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Rather than blame Fairtrade for falling short in one study, consumers need to take responsibility to pressure “companies and governments to do more to effectively tackle poverty and to achieve sustainable rural transitions of benefit to all segments of rural society, as well as protecting the environment for all our sakes” (NRI). Instead of attacking and criticizing, let’s support and help Fairtrade in its mission to make our world a better place.