Two weeks ago, academics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London published a report that was highly critical of Fairtrade. The report stated that workers employed on farms that were part of Fairtrade programmes were usually paid less and had worse working conditions than their peers on non-Fairtrade farms. It also found examples where the social premiums that Fairtrade is supposed to spend on developing poor rural communities were often misspent. Fairtrade UK’s response to the criticism was to launch what amounted to a smear campaign against the authors of the report and their methodology.
So, in the midst of this backlash, I decided to speak to the researchers themselves about their work and Fairtrade’s reaction to it. From the off, Professor Christopher Cramer, who led the four-year study into rural farming economies in Ethiopia and Uganda, is keen to dispel the sort of Western myths about life in rural Africa that Fairtrade has thrived on: ‘There’s always been a sanctity about rural Africa – that it’s a homogeneous place, a society full of small-hold farmers using family labour and that everyone is more or less equal. For a long time we’ve known that that is false.’
I ask Cramer if he was surprised by the study’s findings. ‘Yes and no’, he says. ‘[Fairtrade] perpetuated this fantasy of rural Africa being full of small, family farmers with roughly the same amount of land as each other. Unless there was an extraordinarily benign trickle-down effect, you wouldn’t really expect things to be much better [on Fairtrade farms]. But to find that the wages were worse and that most of the working conditions were worse, that did surprise me – and it’s a puzzle.’
The study’s findings were certainly disconcerting for Fairtrade’s supporters. They showed that farm labourers often make less on Fairtrade farms than non-Fairtrade farms, while many smallholders live in abject poverty. So, does Fairtrade benefit anyone in Third World agriculture? Cramer tells me that, during his four years of field research, his team realised that what Fairtrade defined as ‘smallholders’ covered everything from owners of farms of half a hectare to 130 hectares. The owners of bigger farms, he tells me, ‘are the ones who capture most of the direct benefits. They also tend to control the leadership of the cooperatives.’ So it seems that the larger farms, the ones that would presumably be doing alright anyway, are the only ones that reap the rewards of Fairtrade – a programme allegedly aimed at helping the poorest of the poor.
Cramer’s report is definitely a damning indictment of Fairtrade, which is why Fairtrade is doing all it can to smear its findings. When I wrote about Cramer’s findings a few weeks ago, I was informed that people who had tweeted my piece received direct tweets from Fairtrade UK, dismissing the article as sensationalist and untrue. Naturally, Cramer has borne the brunt of this hostility: ‘There was a legal threat made against us when [Fairtrade officials] saw the first draft of our press release’, he says. ‘They’ve also sent me hostile letters.’