Fair World Project Statement Regarding Coffee Plantations and Hired Labor
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Fair Trade USA  (formerly TransFair USA) and its new initiative, Fair Trade For All,  aims to expand fair trade certification to include coffee plantations.  “Fair Trade for All” has been a major point of contention in Fair Trade USA’s split from Fairtrade International (FLO).  For more on the Fair Trade USA/FLO split, see Fair World Project’s (FWP) statement. Putting aside the secretive and unilateral nature of the initiative, certifying coffee plantations has a number of critical problems.

Small producers and democratic cooperatives are core to the founding principles of the fair trade movement and market.  By definition, small producers are vulnerable, excluded and under resourced in the global market. In the coffee sector, small farmers produce approximately 70% of the global coffee supply. Despite the current high prices in the coffee market, fair trade coops are still unable to sell the majority of their coffee under fair trade terms. Expanding fair trade certification and market access to large-scale plantations will assure that fair trade cooperatives continue to remain vulnerable to volatile international markets and undermine 25 years of fair trade development.

Fair Trade vs Fair Labor

“Fair Trade for All” unfortunately is becoming a divisive issue, pitting small producers against farmworkers. Prominent farmworker leaders have endorsed the initiative, despite the overwhelming rejection of Fair Trade for All from fair trade producer networks, the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) and United Students for Fair Trade. No one in the fair trade movement denies that farmworkers at home and abroad need support and market solidarity. There are infinite examples of deplorable working conditions for agricultural workers in every sector. The question is whether “fair trade” is the appropriate model for addressing hired labor in agricultural contexts. FLO has certified fair trade plantations in a number of specific product categories, like tea and bananas, despite resistance from small producer groups and Aternative Trade Organizations. Fair trade has a mixed record on plantations and hired labor operations, including the tea and banana sector. Complicating matters further, coffee plantation workers are largely seasonal workers, with many workers not returning to the same plantation where they’ve worked the season prior. Assuring that the social premium in fact benefits these workers and that the workplace is operated democratically in the absence of a workers association or union is challenging at best. Perhaps “Fair Labor” certification is a more appropriate approach to supporting farm workers, while keeping fair trade standards, impacts and expectations intact.

“Fair Labor” certification assures a safe workplace, equitable wages and adherence to labor laws. A far labor certification is far more appropriate for hired labor scenarios, as it and does not dilute fair trade as a standard, nor a concept. In fact, there are several existing fair labor 3rd party certifiers and standards, including Scientific Certification Services Fair Labor program and IMO’s “For Life” program. Or might certifiers look to an effective model adopted by anti-sweatshop advocates that include a code of conduct and monitored by an organization like the Workers Rights Consortium.

Voting with our dollars

FTUSA has stated that coffee from fair trade cooperatives and “fair trade” plantations will be virtually identical to consumers, bearing the same “Fair Trade Certified” mark. Indeed, FTUSA does not currently distinguish between small farmer coops and plantations for tea and bananas. Small coffee producers will have no way of distinguishing their product in a meaningful way when compared to plantation coffee, which will be presumably sold at a lower price, given that large-scale plantation operations can take advantage of economies of scale, market access and existing capacity.  Plantations and estates already have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.  Similarly, consumers wishing to continue supporting small farmers and coops will be unable to simply “look for the label.”

Small is Indeed Beautiful

Paul Rice recently stated in an interview, “In our view, small is not beautiful.” FTUSA’s “Fair Trade for All” claims to be innovating the fair trade model, but appears to be responding primarily to the demands of large coffee roasters and importers, like Green Mountain and Starbucks, not the needs and realities of coffee producers on the ground. According to FTUSA’s most recent audited financials, Green Mountain and Starbucks account for approximately one-third of FTUSA’s lincensee revenues, not to mention are major donors to FTUSA. Taking a step back, history, not to mention existing data, demonstrate that real sustainability is small, but with a big impact. Small farmers form the backbone of not only the global food supply, but are central players in safeguarding biodiversity, fostering environmental stewardship and innovating sustainable agricultural practices. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, small farmers hold the key to doubling food production while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty. Similarly, Via Campesina, the global movement of millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, has demonstrated that small farmers can address the global food crisis, in a far more equitable and sustainable way than agribusiness and large-scale farming.

Fair trade veteran advocates, including the Organic Consumers Association, and its recently launched Fair World Project (FWP), have long agitated and encouraged large roasters like Starbucks to source more fair trade coffee. Deepening and expanding the positive impact of fair trade to more small producers is central to our mission. Assuring however, that impact is equitable, sustainable and democratic remains the lynchpin in FWP’s approach to fair trade. We are encouraged by the interest of large, conventional manufacturers, roasters and importers in fair trade. However, strengthening, not diluting, the model at this crossroads in the movement to incorporate these powerful players is the challenge.

Stepping back even further, FTUSA’s recent actions largely reflect a crisis in governance and dysfunctional operating infrastructure.  Had FTUSA’s board of directors truly reflected the constellation of voices and perspectives in the fair trade movement (including producers, advocates, ATOs, students, etc.), we doubt that Fair Trade For All would have provoked such widespread condemnation. FTUSA would have been a better steward of fair trade had it surveyed the fair trade community as a whole prior to moving forward with its plans to certify for large-scale plantations in an inclusive and transparent process, rather than request comments on the initiative after the fact. If FTUSA choses to enter the global system as an independent and reputable certifier, it must establish transparent and effective mechanisms for stakeholder engagement, and be accountable to that process. Abandoning its plans to certify coffee plantations would be a positive first step in righting the course.

FTUSA is moving forward with “fair trade” certification of coffee plantations in 2012. IMO’s Fair for Life standards are scale neutral and allows for certification of hired labor operations in any sector, though IMO has yet to certify coffee plantations.  Fairtrade International (FLO) does not currently certify coffee plantations, though is under pressure to expand plantation certification to coffee and other sectors.

Posted on September 28th, 2012


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