The Fair Trade, Employment and Poverty Reduction Project released its final report on its four-year research into agricultural labor in Ethiopia and Uganda. One of the main findings of this report was that wages among workers in fair trade certified operations were on average lower and working conditions no better or sometimes worse than on farms that were not certified as fair trade. Included in the research were large-scale plantations, which are relatively recent and controversial additions to fair trade and their inclusion complicates the findings.
One positive contributions of this report is documenting that even on small-scale fair trade farms that are part of a co-operative, hired labor is common. These workers have been largely invisible in fair trade discourse to date. One way to remedy this is to include worker representatives in program development and decision-making where they have to date largely been left out, which may explain in part the general finding of the report that benefits of fair trade do not extend to workers. Fair trade was first conceived as a way to enhance opportunities and market access for small-scale farmers. Yet as the model is improved, worker wellbeing and voices needs to be included, though it should also be acknowledged that some of the wage laborers themselves were also farmers supplementing their income through wage labor. In many fair trade communities there is not a clear division between workers and farmers, but rather many individuals play both roles.
However, though this report contributes to our understanding of fair trade’s strengths and weaknesses, it does not mean that the fair trade model is not working or should be abandoned. Most farmers and co-ops cannot sell all that they produce on fair trade terms. The report does not consider this as a factor in whether farmers are able to provide adequately for their workers. One conclusion that could be drawn from the report is that we need more committed brands investing in fair trade so that fair trade farmers may sell all products under fair trade terms which would increase the stability of these farms and benefit both producers and workers.
The report also indicates that in the case of a long-term stable relationship with a buyer, a fair trade operation did succeed in providing better wages and conditions, which may indicate that we should refocus attention on relationships within the supply chain and prevent the use of fair trade for mere marketing purposes. This also highlights the difference between authentic fair trade where fair brands develop long-term relationships with producer groups, creating real impact, and a newer wave of big food companies who look for easy access to ingredients they can label as fair trade in an attempt to make themselves look better even if no real impact results.
Additional research is needed to assess how the fair trade certification model can be improved for small-scale farmers and their employees, without confusing the issues between scale size and farm structure. Plantations themselves should be taken out of the fair trade model and other mechanisms, especially governmental policies used to strengthen labor rights and improve conditions and wages for workers.
In the end, fair trade certification is just one tool that may bring us closer to a just economy, and as we work to refine this tool, reports like these also serve as reminders that not all initiatives to benefit people are adequately captured by one tool.