Although Fairtrade products have become popular with consumers who want to make ethical purchases, a recent study about Fairtrade by the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) suggests the most marginalized Fairtrade farm workers may not be benefiting from their sales.

Christopher Cramer, Professor of the Political Economy of Development at SOAS and one of the study’s contributors said, “We wanted to look at the employment and labour market dimensions because these are perhaps the least well understood dimensions of Fairtrade.” He added, “Also, to the extent that the evidence shows that the very poorest people are those who depend for their survival on access to wage employment, then if Fairtrade is relevant to the lives of the poorest people this must be an important subject to find out about."

The researchers spent four years gathering data from both Fairtrade certified and similar non-Fairtrade coffee and tea farms in Uganda and coffee and flower farms in Ethiopia. The study found that agricultural workers, in particular women, often earned less on Fairtrade certified farms than on comparable small scale farms that weren’t Fairtrade and that overall, wages were highest on large commercial farms. In addition, it was found that although a portion of Fairtrade’s premium is used for social projects such as health clinics and schools, in some cases the most marginalized workers lacked access to these facilities.

Cramer believes there are several reasons Fairtrade has been ineffective in reaching the most marginalized workers, including an inadequate monitoring and auditing process and a reluctance of “a small minority of 'large' so-called smallholders who have little incentive to pass the benefits down the chain.” He said, “Fairtrade is not good at reaching the poorest workers because it has done little to address the wage gap - the difference in pay between the poorest workers and the wages and salaries of the cooperative leaders or the wages/salaries of senior Fairtrade executives internationally, instead focusing global discourse on the price gaps between farm gate prices and retail supermarket prices.”

Regarding the study’s findings, Nicola Frame, Fairtrade Foundation's Media and PR Manager acknowledged the challenges that exist for Fairtrade, saying “While Fairtrade does make an overall positive difference to farmers and workers, Fairtrade certification cannot fix all of the deeply-rooted issues that exist in producer communities and in international trade.” In a statement, they also said the foundation “welcomes the underlying research for this report”. However, they took issue with some of the study’s research design and also believed it had limitations since it only examined a limited range of commodities in two countries.

The study was published in April of this year. In a follow-up to its publication, Cramer said, “Fairtrade International is starting to take wage labour more seriously, which is a good thing. I hope our research is helping in this direction.” Still, he thinks there is more to be understood surrounding this issue. “I think a new area of research that is very important is to understand what does drive better wages and conditions and to understand to what extent a commitment to very high quality output in coffee especially (but not exclusively) may make a difference.”

Frame added an update from Fairtrade, “Earlier this year, we launched a new Hired Labour Standard which requires Fairtrade certified plantations to make progress towards a living wage over time, and strengthens workers’ rights." These standards include working conditions that are equal for everyone as well as salaries that are higher or equal to the national average.

Image Credit: Josh Tidsbury