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In Defense of Fair Trade: A Response to the Farmworker Problem

fair trade certified farm

(editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of posts published by Daily Coffee News responding to a report in May from researchers at the University of London suggesting that fair trade certifications had done little to improve, and in cases negatively affected, the livelihoods of farmworkers. For some background, including links to the original report, read “Coffee’s Poorest of the Poor Cut Out of Certification Benefits” and a follow-up post, “Fair Trade’s Dirty Little Secret is Out.”

note 2: In the following piece, Nora Burkey mentions of the term “Fair Trade” follow the original report’s generic use of the term “Fair Trade.”)

by Nora Burkey

While critical evaluation of any ethical scheme is very important, I find that evaluations of Fair Trade are rarely if ever constructive, and usually border on naively derisive. A recent report by the Fair Trade, Employment, and Poverty Reduction project highlighted that farm workers on Fair Trade farms in Ethiopia and Uganda were often treated worse and lived in worse conditions than their non-Fair Trade counterparts.

The first thing that struck me in one report was that in describing the difficulties of finding sites in which to research, the authors wrote, “An authoritarian ruling political party or the Fair Trade certifying body or manipulative cooperative union officials may have preselected the area for researchers, discouraging research in other ways.”

(related: Farmworkers: The Coffee Industry’s Ethical Blight and a PR Disaster in Waiting)

This was, at best, a completely unprofessional description of a union official or ruling political party, as adjectives such as “manipulative” have no place in a supposedly unbiased report on labor in two African countries. But the very fact that a ruling party was described as authoritarian, or a cooperative official described as manipulative — curiously, the Fair Trade certifying body is given no clarifier of corruption here — reveals something greater about the way we see Fair Trade. It reveals that we somehow thought corruption would be absent in Fair Trade, which is a very silly assumption indeed.

Fair Trade was never about paying a fair price to farmers in exchange for making sure that all their workers were treated well. In fact, Fair Trade was never equipped to manage farmers or development projects at all. Fair Trade began with a commitment to buy only from cooperatives. By belonging to an organization, small landowning farmers can achieve direct market access through said organization instead of selling their coffee to coyotes for next to nothing. This type of system allows farmers ownership of their production and land, and not just their labor.

The Fair Trade certifying body promises a minimum price to cooperatives, as well as a minimum contribution to social projects, but these social projects, and what the cooperative does with their money, is almost entirely up to them. So if Fair Trade farmers all vote and decide to use their premium to better the quality of their coffee rather than treating their workers to better quality toilets, we might have to start calling those farmers autonomous rather than corrupt.

(related: Farmworkers Left Behind: The Human Cost of Coffee Production)

The report suggests that Fair Trade has avoided the farm worker problem by focusing research “on producers, idealized as small farm households using family labor to produce certified crops.” As it turns out, Fair Trade families do hire labor, but the discussion becomes much more nuanced than the report would let on. Daniel Jaffee discusses the role of farm workers in Mexico in Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival. The very fact that Fair Trade families need to hire farm labor directly contributes to the growth of the economy and the development of extra sources of income in farming communities. In other words, when Fair Trade families must hire wage laborers, they create more economic opportunities in their communities, and thus Fair Trade creates a ripple effect and extends it reach. In many settings, job creation is a good thing. When Fair Trade does it, why do we become so disillusioned?

If this report is any indication, perhaps it is because Fair Trade families are not doing an amazing job of treating these farm workers well. However, it must be noted that Fair Trade families truly cannot afford to pay their workers very much. Fair Trade, by working with small landowners, buys coffee from some of the poorest of the poor, meaning conditions are typically not going to be ideal. Fair Trade producers simply don’t have the same resources as larger landowners, and many live in indigenous communities that do not have a payment structure based on cash in the first place. I am left to wonder whether an indigenous community with a system of labor based on roles and responsibilities rather than money would be highlighted for improper treatment of workers.

Moreover, if there were no hired farm labor at all, Fair Trade families would all be relying on their own producers to work the farm — family members, children, etc. It seems strange to grow concerned about the treatment of wage workers on Fair Trade farms because it suggests we were altogether unconcerned about who did this very same labor before. Is it somehow more concerning when a 10-year-old boy from outside the community starts receiving wages for farm work than it was when a 10-year-old boy in the family was before doing it all for free? The fact that Fair Trade farmers are now hiring farm workers is an important part of the story, not how much they are able to pay those laborers, or in what conditions those laborers are working. Why? Because it tells us both what Fair Trade has done right and where its limitations lie.

(related: Inside the SCAA’s ‘Blueprint’ to End Hunger Among Coffee Farmers)

Jaffee highlights how hiring wage labor means Fair Trade families are usually left with little to no money at the end of the harvest, since all of what they make by being Fair Trade is paid out to farm workers. Indeed, Fair Trade families make more money when they have more producers in their families than consumers. Here is where we see Fair Trade’s Catch-22. The social premium in Fair Trade has allowed farmers to focus on education for their children, who, in attending school, cannot work the farm at home, and furthermore may grow up with more opportunities outside the farm.

We see that cooperative membership is dwindling as the younger population is leaving farming communities to obtain other jobs. But if the answer is not to put an end to education for children of farmers, we must accept that perhaps farm workers on Fair Trade farms are both a critical and important sign of progress, a sign that many social programs have been a success. Of course, if Fair Trade families do not make enough money after labor costs, shouldn’t we respond by offering them more for their coffee?

Well, maybe. But before we blame Fair Trade exclusively for their low minimum, let us remember that there is no system in place to cap the maximum price a coffee company in the global North can make off of roasting green coffee, nor is there any law that forces companies to share their profits more equitably. When the non-Fair Trade coffee industry buys coffee from farmers at origin (at the price they decide, be that big or small) and sells it up North at a higher rate, we usually call that business.

(related: It’s the Market, Stupid: Why We Need Greater Farm-Level Incentives)

There is no denying that a huge number of workers in coffee are not touched by Fair Trade. However, the original idea was not to certify farms that do everything right, rather to support autonomy and organization in the coffeelands. Many buyers seek farms that already operate in a sustainable responsible way. But if we are willing to accept that there are “manipulative” union officials who show us only what we want to see, what is stopping large landowners from doing the same? The reality is there are skeletons in everyone’s closet, not just Fair Trade’s. And a cloud hanging over this entire discussion is that unfortunately, international commodity trading as it is leaves little room for the concept of “fair.”



Kevin Knox

Very good post, which in talking about the historical intention of certified Fair Trade coffee also underlines that the point of such certification was and is to establish an equitable floor price for “coffee with a lower-case C” – that is to say, commercial-grade coffee.

The point of specialty coffee, meanwhile, is to establish the quality-based ceiling. Obviously there are many groups – and roasters – working to do this with cooperatives, but the point is that Fair Trade, which as Ms. Burkey points out is in reality a charitable aid program for cooperatives, not a price or quality discovery (or promotion or enhancement) mechanism, is about making sure the poorest of the poor have some degree of market access and some hope of survival. The appropriate roaster audience for promotion of such coffees are the giant multinationals for whom (as Roy Farmer of Farmer Brothers once famously said) “there ain’t a bean been born too cheap for us to buy.”

Andy Newbom

Excellent repaste Nora. Fair Trade pricing is STILL vastly superior to ‘rape and pillage’ pricing of the commodity chain. There is no system that is perfect, there is only progress. There is no way that ALL coffee will be bought at high enough prices for all participants in the chain to make a “living wage” unless global climate change reduces the coffee supply so drastically that there is only speciality coffee grown above 1500 MASL that farmers sell for $5-7/lb green. Anyone who knocks Fair Trade as being BAD has a false axe to grind. (Note that Michael Sheridan does not have this axe to grind, he in fact suggested many solutions)

Coffee is a pyramid of quality, price and supply. Small amounts of blisteringly great coffee at high prices and moving down in quality and price and up in quantity as you go down the pyramid. You can not flatten the pyramid, nor would you want to. IMNVHO

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