It’s official: Fairtrade screws over labourers

A new study exposes Fairtrade for what it is – a Western vanity project that impoverishes those it’s meant to benefit.

Russell McCarthy

Topics World

The world’s ethical shoppers are still reeling this week after a report revealed that Fairtrade programmes are of little benefit to those working on farms in the developing world.

The government-funded study published by SOAS, a part of the University of London, was conducted over a four-year period in Uganda and Ethiopia. It showed that labourers on farms that are part of Fairtrade programmes are usually paid less and are subject to worse working conditions than their peers on large commercial farms, and even other small farms that are not part of Fairtrade programmes. Professor Christopher Cramer, the study’s main author, said: ‘Fairtrade has not been an effective mechanism for improving the lives of wage workers, the poorest rural people.’

The study also found that the ‘social premium’ incorporated into the price of Fairtrade products, which is meant to be used to improve infrastructure in poor communities, is often misspent. In one instance, researchers found that modern toilets built with this premium were in fact for the use of senior farm managers only. The report also documented examples of health clinics and schools set up with social-premium funds that charged fees that were too high for the labourers they were intended to benefit.

Of course, nobody needed the clever people at SOAS to tell us all this. From its very inception, the concept of Fairtrade was rooted in maintaining low ‘sustainable’ horizons for the poor by those who consider people in Africa and other parts of the Third World to be intrinsically different to the rest of us. The movement did not originate with the poor farmers of the developing world, but with Western NGOs and their army of gap-year do-gooders intent on imposing their reactionary ‘small is beautiful’ values on an Africa desperate for change.

According to the Fairtrade worldview, the poor farmers of the world are in fact quite happy with their lot and only desire a stable, if low, price for their produce. Once this is in place, they will be free to enjoy their simple idyllic existence. The fact that Western countries left extreme poverty behind through rapid industrialisation and urbanisation does not apply to Africa, they say. Instead, it is of paramount importance that Fairtrade ‘promotes and protects the cultural identity and traditional skills of small producers’. They should receive enough money never to be in danger of starvation, but not enough to afford a foreign holiday or to send a child to university or, indeed, do any of the things we in the West enjoy, lest it undermine their cultural identity.

The concept of Fairtrade was enthusiastically lapped up by Western companies desperate to prove their brands were ethical and right-on – now they could tell their customers that by buying their goods they were making the world a better place. It became one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history.

In reality, though, the idea of ethical shoppers transforming the world through their consumer choices was always a fairy tale. Yes, Fairtrade farmers are guaranteed a minimum price for their produce, in the event that the price of the commodity they produce crashes. However, in return they are expected to adhere to stringent regulations, many of which prevent producers from developing or expanding their farms. As a result of Fairtrade, then, many farmers are kept in poverty.

Principle 10 of the Fairtrade charter, for instance, demands that farmers have ‘respect for the environment’. In practice, this means actively discouraging the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and mechanisation – the three things that make modern agriculture possible. Instead, Fairtrade stresses the importance of ‘traditional skills’, which is code for backbreaking manual labour. The end result of all this is that farmers are forced to endure more toil for lower yields. It is no surprise that farmers pass the economic pinch on to their labourers in the form of lower wages.

All of this has been known for a long time. In 2005, the education charity WORLDwrite made the documentary The Bitter Aftertaste which exposed the chasm between the desperate circumstances of those who worked on Fairtrade smallholdings and the self-righteous do-gooders back in Blighty who believed they were helping them. Almost a decade on, it seems little has changed. The Guardian, which has long been Fairtrade’s loudest media cheerleader, foolishly defended its cause in the face of the report’s scathing criticism. Commissioning a series of articles, including one by Cramer, it chose to go with the line that the damaging impact of Fairtrade on the developing world meant that Fairtrade should be reformed rather than done away with altogether.

It’s a sorry state of affairs. Advocates of Fairtrade such as the Guardian accept that all people in the developing world deserve is a life just above subsistence, and that it’s our duty in the West to provide that for them. It is time this patronising attitude gave way to a more positive outlook, one which sees economic development as the best way to improve the lives of farmers. Rather than lamenting the changes economic development will bring to the way of life of rural Africans, these changes should be celebrated. African farmers don’t need Fairtrade restrictions and regulations; they need the freedom to develop their societies into modern economies, with large efficient modern farms in which the workers might have a chance to demand a decent wage for their labour.

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Topics World


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