New Report, Old Problems: Time to Pay Cocoa Workers Fairly and Find Real Solutions for Tea Workers

A new report entitled The Global Business of Forced Labor finds serious issues of forced labor, poor labor conditions, and poverty wages in the tea and cocoa sectors. Focusing on tea plantations in India and cocoa smallholder farms in Ghana, the author clearly calls out that “forced labor emerges as a business strategy for producers to cut cost and generate revenue.”

Alarmingly, the report also finds that eco-social certifications are not working in these sectors and regions.

To some extend, these issues are not new, but some context may help in understanding them. Since tea plantations in India and small cocoa farms in Ghana are very different, we approach them separately here.

Tea Plantations in India

It is not a new revelation that certification is failing workers on tea plantations. Previous academic research and media investigations have questioned the effectiveness that certification programs have on tea plantations in India. (We’ve previously commented on some of these.) Past reports have found violations of standards—and of basic human and workers’ rights—on certified farms. Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this newest report finds that workers on certified plantations are not better off than those on non-certified plantations.

In our report Justice in the Fields, we look at various certification programs that seek to address worker justice on large-scale farms. One of our main arguments is that standards are meaningless without enforcement. There are no eco-social certifications that allow forced labor. So if it is happening, it is because the standards are not enforced.

Each time a report uncovers poor conditions and exploitation on certified farms, the standard setters and labelers declare they will investigate. The problems are not new. Unfortunately, neither are the solutions. Too many certification schemes rely too heavily on infrequent audits and not enough on worker-led enforcement.

We’ve recently endorsed the work of the Worker-Driven Responsibility Network.  This is a coalition expanding the model of worker-driven standards and enforcement pioneered by groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Worker Rights Consortium, and Migrant Justice in which workers on large farms or in factories take responsibility for identifying problems and overseeing the resolution. This model leverages the purchasing power of global brands to support the enforcement of worker’s rights. If a farm fails to correct abuses, participating brands will not buy from them. By acknowledging the imbalances of power in the supply chain and making the cost of not addressing exploitation skyrocket, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program has virtually eliminated slavery and sexual harassment from the tomato fields of Florida.

This Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model works for eliminating some of the worst forms of labor exploitation. The model of eco-social certifications that rely on audits, while effective for smallholders, has not been effective in all settings. If we are serious about drinking tea without exploitation, we need to look to new and emerging models to replace the models that, though well-meaning, have failed.

Cocoa in West Africa

The situation is different in West Africa cocoa. These are mostly smallholder farmers who struggle to survive themselves. The Global Business of Forced Labor finds that there was a lot of confusion about which farms were certified and which standards were being met. In addition, the extra money a farmer received from selling certified product was not enough to farm in an economically and socially sustainable way or even cover the additional cost of complying with standards.

Forced labor, child labor, and poverty income for farmers in the cocoa sector are well-documented problems. We have long advocated for higher prices for farmers, whether certified or not. Too many eco-social certifications and charitable or corporate responsibility programs try to address these problems using solutions like “efficiency” or “better yields.” A growing number of advocates are joining us and urgently call for fair prices to be part of the solution. Only fair prices allow farmers to pay workers fairly, invest in the environmental sustainability of their farms, and keep their families out of poverty.

Fair trade does call for fair prices and the Fairtrade System, the largest fair trade labeling program, has done a lot of work in addressing price and a holistic approach to ending exploitation in the sector. (See for example their own recent report Cocoa Farmer Income.)  However, the Fairtrade System alone cannot address the problem of low prices. There need to be willing buyers, and right now most of the certified product is actually sold into the conventional market because there are too few fair trade buyers. We need more buyers willing to pay a fair price and we need to set a higher expectation for what is a fair price.

What Can a Consumer Do?

It is easy to see a report like this and conclude there are no good options for consumers. Let that not be the takeaway from this latest report.
Fair trade is still the best option for chocolate. We need to buy more of it, not less. And we need to be willing to pay even more for chocolate than we do now if we are serious about ending poverty and exploitation.

Fair World Project has long argued that plantations have no place in the fair trade system. Though certainly workers on these plantations need better pay and conditions, models like WSR are better positioned to address these challenges than fair trade. In addition, when plantations do qualify for a fair trade label, and especially when they do so without truly meeting standards, they may pose a threat to small-scale farmers competing in the same markets, but with fewer resources and higher standards.

Many of the most ethical tea companies know their suppliers well. And though small-scale tea coops are rare, some brands, like Equal Exchange, do work with smallholders. Don’t be afraid to research your favorite tea brand and ask questions about suppliers.

Meanwhile, advocate for better models, like worker-driven social responsibility. Instead of abandoning a whole sector or product or label, let’s all work together to make better options available for farmers, workers, and consumers.


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