Fair Trade USA has rolled out plans to pilot a fair trade dairy standard with Chobani on farms in New York State and Idaho. While there are numerous challenges facing the U.S. dairy industry, we believe that fair trade certification is the wrong solution, and that Fair Trade USA is the wrong organization to lead such a program. Fair Trade USA’s approach is particularly misguided because, in this situation, better solutions exist. Thanks to a constitutional case brought by the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York, farm and dairy workers in New York have won an historic victory enshrining the right to organize in state law. The Milk with Dignity program offers an enforceable, worker-driven approach to protecting workers’ rights in the dairy industry. If Chobani wants to get serious about protecting workers, they have models to follow, and organized workers’ groups to partner with. Instead, it appears that Chobani is choosing public relations over human rights by choosing Fair Trade USA, a certifier known for ineffective enforcement and corporate-friendly standards.
The challenges facing the dairy industry are massive and structural. Low prices, corporate consolidation, trade deals, declining consumption of milk and yogurt, and rising prices for feed are all squeezing dairy farmers. Meanwhile, that squeeze is passed on to the workers they hire to do the difficult, dangerous work of maintaining a dairy year-round. The Milked report details those struggles – dangerous conditions, low pay, lack of common workplace protections, inadequate legal protections for farmworkers, and marginalization and isolation due to immigration status. The issues are huge, and real. But a Fair Trade USA dairy certification is not the right solution.
Fair Trade in Name Only: An Overview of Fair Trade USA’s Standards
While dairy standards have yet to be fully developed or released for public comment, there is plenty to be concerned about in Fair Trade USA’s process and the ways that their other standards operate.
- Standards Without Enforcement: Fair Trade USA’s certification relies on annual third party audits for enforcement. As documented in our Justice in the Fields report, annual inspections alone are inadequate to protect workers’ rights and unearth violations as it is too easy to conceal mistreatment for a day or two per year. Their standards do not require a worker representative to be present for worker interviews, further weakening their protections and the possibility that workers will feel safe speaking of non-compliances and potential abuses. Further, a recent case on a Fyffes’ plantation in Honduras unearthed how impotent Fair Trade USA’s inspection protocols are in practice, and how they fail to account for the realities of farmworkers’ workplaces and the power dynamics between farmers and workers. And, as a voluntary certification, the protections for workers were strictly limited—while, after an international outcry, Fair Trade USA finally decertified the plantation in question, their actions had no impact on Fyffes and the workers’ struggle continues.
- Corporate-Led vs. Worker-Led: Fair Trade USA has a long history of prioritizing corporate input over that of frontline workers. The rollout of this program is yet another example, with input from local groups not even solicited until after the big press rollout. Further, Fair Trade USA is not a worker-led organization. Their board is made up entirely of corporate executives and even their advisory council has no worker representation. Further, Fair Trade USA has previously rolled out certification programs against the advice of leading advocacy organizations in the target industry. Their apparel standard was met with opposition across the anti-sweatshop movement and from labor advocates, including those who participated in their pilot. Yet, despite denunciation from pilot participants, Fair Trade USA pushed the program out, and continues to recruit more and more mainstream brands who use the program as part of their CSR campaigns.
- Weak Support for Worker Organizing: Organized workers are the best defenders of their own rights. Fair Trade USA’s standards have weak support for worker organizing. Even in global industries with relatively high rates of union representation, their apparel standard does not require workers to be organized for certification. And, unlike Fairtrade International’s apparel standard, they will certify factories in countries where unionization is illegal, depriving workers of solid protections. Fair Trade USA’s agricultural standard follows the baseline ILO conventions, allowing workers to organize and prohibiting retaliation, but falls to require farm management to bargain in good faith.
- Low Wages: Fair Trade USA’s standards for both agricultural and apparel workers base their requirements on local minimum wages. This is a low standard in many places—and is particularly weak in the U.S. where farmworkers are widely exempted from minimum wage laws. Their standards require that employers are aware of what a living wage might be after the first year of certification and, by year 6, the requirement is: “If current wages, including in-kind contributions, are below the living wage, a plan has been developed to increase compensation over time to reach a living wage. This plan is being implemented.” The strongest requirement is for a plan but not for actually paying living wage.
- Failure to Tackle Key Issues: As Fair Trade USA has continually expanded the scope of their certification, they have failed to address key issues underlying the exploitation in the new industries that they find themselves in. While one of the challenges in farm work is tracing accountability due to the prevalence of labor contractors, Fair Trade USA has created a standard with a number of loopholes to allow them. Apparel supply chains are rife with exploitation and abuses from field to factory. Yet Fair Trade USA’s standards only address the final cut-and-sew stage, leaving farmers and workers at ginning and spinning mills completely out of the scope of their “fair trade.”
- Weak Price Protections: While fair prices for farmers is one of the top talking points on fair trade, Fair Trade USA fails to live up to that promise. For crops including cane sugar and palm oil, they willingly lend their label without including a floor price at all. In other cases, their pricing has lagged behind the movement of other fair trade certifiers (for example, when Fairtrade International raised minimum cocoa prices, Fair Trade USA failed to follow their lead for over 6 months). And, even more importantly, their standards do not include strong provisions for farmers to negotiate pricing with buyers based on their own costs of production—the kind of protections necessary to help farmers break out of the relentless race to the bottom of our global food system. The current proposal for their fair trade dairy pilot includes no mention of minimum prices, just a 1-4% premium (depending on which press sources you read).
So far, the program revealed by Fair Trade USA and Chobani fails to address these key concerns. Instead, it suggests that Fair Trade USA is prepared to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Fair for Whom?
Fair trade was initially a movement by and for small-scale farmers to shift the balance of power and allow them to participate in the global marketplace. Those farmers were building solidarity ties with buyers and, through the power organizing and forming associations and cooperatives, gaining critical economies of scale. Today, those origins are almost undetectable in what Fair Trade USA is calling “fair trade.” Gone are the small-scale farmers. Gone is the emphasis on organizing, either for farmers or workers. Gone is the leadership of frontline communities. In its place, a weak ethical veneer constructed from the language and movements of small-scale farmers but bearing little resemblance to their actual movements.
Worker-Led Solutions Work
What hasn’t changed is the power of organizing. Worker-led solutions exist—and they are working. One of the recommendations of the Milked report was to create “a worker-driven and independently monitored social responsibility program for New York dairy farms,” including legally binding commitments for purchasers and third-party monitoring of standards set by worker organizations with “a mechanism for the monitoring body to enforce the resolution of complaints raised by workers.” The report cites the examples of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program and Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program that emerged from worker organizing as successful Worker-Led Social Responsibility programs that are improving conditions for workers in their respective industries.
The Workers Center of Central New York (WCCNY) and workers in New York dairies have also powerfully organized and won a string of victories granting workers in New York State the right to organize and overtime protections. And, based on the needs of their community, they have organized for, and won, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Through organizing, these worker-led groups are creating real, demonstrable change in workers’ lives both on and off the job.
Dairy workers in New York have a strong track record of organizing and, with new protections for the right to organize, are even stronger. Yet they are the exception, not the rule. Too many farmworkers continue to be denied the right to organize as well as basic minimum wage and overtime protections. The weaknesses cited above make clear that Fair Trade USA lacks the means or the mechanisms to change that. Although dairy workers in New York have a strong record of organizing, as anywhere else they face fierce backlash and retaliation. Fair Trade USA has failed to protect workers against retaliation, as demonstrated in the Fyffes case. And, even more crucially, their standards do not include the mechanisms to support workers organizing to win and protect these rights for themselves. Those rights are essential—both for workers’ livelihoods and for all of us who advocate for safe, clean food. In the words of the National Employment Law Project, “When the right to organize is protected, workers can become frontline allies for consumer protection; this is as true for farmworkers as it is for flight attendants, power plant operators, truck drivers, and bank tellers.”
Fair Trade Dairy—but Without Fair Trade Farmers
Small-scale farmers have traditionally been the main intended beneficiary of fair trade. Yet there is no mention of small-scale farmers in Chobani’s Milk Matters program, nor in Fair Trade USA’s rollout. In an industry that’s losing small family farms every day, this program acts as though they are already gone. Roughly 80% of New York’s dairy farm workers are working on large (500-1,000 cows) or very large (more than 1,000 cows) farms. Those workers won’t be the only one this program is failing. Instead, Fair Trade USA is offering up its label for a program that stands to undercut small-scale farmers already under threat in a consolidating industry. This won’t be the first time that Fair Trade USA has granted its label to large-scale farms and plantations at the expense of small ones—and it’s just another way that they are putting corporate marketing ahead of small-scale farmers and workers.
Who stands to win from fair trade dairy? Chobani, who gets to gloss over the deadly working conditions documented in their supply chains with a new logo? Fair Trade USA, who gets to extend their brand into yet another industry, touting a one-size-fits all approach to Corporate-led Social Responsibility? One thing is clear: neither farmers nor workers stand to win.