Sales of Fairtrade-certified products from Uganda and Ethiopia are not benefiting poor farm workers as profits fail to trickle down to much of the workforce, a groundbreaking study says.
The Fairtrade Foundation is committed to “better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.”
However, a UK government-sponsored study, which investigated the production of flowers, coffee and tea in Ethiopia and Uganda, found that “where Fairtrade flowers were grown, and where there were farmers’ groups selling coffee and tea into Fairtrade certified markets, wages were very low.”
“Wages in other comparable areas and among comparable employers producing the same crops, but where there was no certification, were usually higher and working conditions better,” said University of London economics professor Christopher Cramer, one of the report’s authors. “In our research sites, Fairtrade has not been an effective mechanism for improving the lives of wage workers, the poorest rural people.”
Researchers who collected detailed information on more than 1,500 people said they also found evidence of the widespread use of children being paid to work on farms growing produce for Britain’s leading ethical label.
Fairtrade, started in Britain 25 years ago by development and consumer groups, including Oxfam and the Women’s Institute, has grown into one of the world’s most trusted ethical schemes, with 1.24 million farmers and workers around the world. Fairtrade products contribute to the funding of schools, health clinics, sanitation and other “social projects” in rural areas. In Britain it is a ￡1.78 billion (US$3 billion) enterprise backed by government, Comic Relief, churches and supermarkets.
Fairtrade tea and coffee from Ethiopia and Uganda are popular with millions of British consumers. Starbucks, the British House of Commons and Virgin Atlantic are among many organizations advertising that they serve Fairtrade products from these countries.
Generally, the study found, wages were higher on farms that were larger, commercial and not Fairtrade-certified. Even among smallholder sites, wages were generally lower in the areas dominated by Fairtrade producers.
Social projects, paid for partly by the Fairtrade Foundation premium, were found not to provide equal benefits. In one tea cooperative, the modern toilets funded with the premium were exclusively for the use of senior managers.
The study also found that young people were widely used as laborers on both Fairtrade and other farms.
“When wage workers aged over 14 years were interviewed, a very large proportion said they had been working since the age of 10, or even earlier,” it said. “What is clear ... is that very significant numbers of school-age children are working for wages in the production of agricultural export crops, including Fairtrade-certified commodities.”
The authors said idealism and naivety could explain why Fairtrade did not reach the poorest people in Ethiopia and Uganda.
Fairtrade International said the report’s conclusions were unfair and generalized.
“In several places, it compares wages and working conditions of workers in areas where small-scale Fairtrade-certified tea and coffee farmer were present with those on large-scale plantations in the same regions,” it said in a statement. “The report itself identifies farm size, scale and integration into global trade chains as major factors influencing conditions for wage workers, but then its conclusions appear to be based on unfair and distorted comparisons between farms and organizations of dramatically different size, nature and means.”