In May, researchers at the Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction program at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London released a report based on four years of intensive field research in Ethiopia an Uganda whose findings were critical of Fair Trade’s record on farmworkers. I only just got around to reading the full report. I know I am coming late to the conversation, but today I share the three messages I consider most important in this report. (They are not, incidentally, the ones the FTEPR researchers consider the most important.)
In their Introduction, the authors suggest that the three principal findings of the research are these:
- “Wage employment in areas producing agricultural exports is widespread.”
- “People who depend on access to wage employment in export commodity production are typically extremely poor.”
- “This research was unable to find any evidence that Fairtrade has made a positive difference to the wages and working conditions of those employed in the production of the commodities produced for Fairtrade certified export.”
These are all valuable findings. But that doesn’t necessarily make them the report’s most important contributions to our understanding of Fair Trade or the sustainability conversation in coffee.
In my book, the report’s top three messages are these.
FAIR TRADE COFFEE’S DIRTY LITTLE LABOR SECRET IS OUT. THE LINES BETWEEN LABOR CATEGORIES ARE BLURRIER IN REALITY THAN IN THE FAIR TRADE COFFEE NARRATIVE.
The Fair Trade narrative and Fair Trade Certification standards have stubbornly insisted on the distinction between “smallholder” and “hired labor” production systems in spite of clear and persistent evidence that the reality in the coffeelands is much more fluid.
Smallholder coffee farmers are a significant source of both demand for and supply of wage labor in the coffee sector.
On the demand side, the report argues that Fair Trade standards for coffee “have been based on the erroneous assumption that the vast majority of production is based on family labor.” It identifies larger smallholders as the principal source of labor demand in coffee. But in my work, I routinely see farmers with one hectare of coffee or less relying primarily on hired labor during harvest. Despite the false dichotomy between smallholder and hired labor systems, hiring farmworkers is not the exclusive domain of large landowners.
On the supply side, the report talks about huge percentages of households in coffee-growing areas in Ethiopia and Uganda that have worked for wages in the coffee fields. My experience in Latin America is consistent with those findings. In our projects, wage labor on coffee farms is a standard component of livelihood diversification strategies among smallholder coffee farming households. For households that do not permanently depend on paid labor outside their own farms, wage labor is a leading coping strategy in times of economic distress. In other words, smallholder coffee farmers are frequently also coffee farmworkers. This is especially true among the most marginal smallholder coffee growers.
But for me, this report is more illuminating about farmworkers than Fair Trade. It represents powerful confirmation of two other truths.
(2.) FARMWORKERS ARE THE POOREST AND MOST VULNERABLE PARTICIPANTS IN COFFEE SUPPLY CHAINS.
(3.) AND THEY ARE (MOSTLY) INVISIBLE IN COFFEE’S SUSTAINABILITY MOVEMENT.
I confess that I initially read the report’s first two key findings with some cynicism, scrawling “DUH!” in the margins next to each of them. They are, after all, things we “know” empirically from our work in the coffeelands. But the report’s authors make the case convincingly with data, bringing welcome rigor to each of these points and showing how families dependent on agricultural wage labor are systematically poorer, hungrier and more vulnerable than their neighbors who are not.
When I once heard a coffee colleague liken recruiting farmworkers for harvest to “scraping the bottom of the barrel,” I winced–mostly because it sounded so uncharitable, but partly because I understood where it was coming from. Many people in the coffeelands only perform unskilled manual labor in the fields (the most grueling and least profitable way to earn a livelihood) because they don’t have better (less grueling, more rewarding) options. In a labor market that is increasingly knowledge-based, the workers who do the unskilled manual farm labor are generally the poorest, the least educated, the most vulnerable, as the report shows.
The authors attribute their most provocative finding–that Fair Trade in coffee has not had a positive impact on farmworkers–to certification’s relentless and exclusive focus on smallholder growers and democratically run cooperatives. They write, memorably:
“Fairtrade certification has failed to benefit poor wage workers because it has overlooked their existence.”
But it is not just Fair Trade coffee that has historically disregarded farmworkers. For a quarter-century, the coffee industry has distinguished itself for tireless innovation to make the coffee trade more inclusive, but the sprawling farmworker population has mostly remained at the margins of those efforts.
Thankfully, if slowly, this is beginning to change.
If the social impact narrative of Fair Trade, and of sustainable coffee more broadly, is to ring true, farmworkers and farmworker issues must move more quickly into the slipstream of the conversation.
A natural starting point might be for all of us–industry, academia, aid organizations, certifiers, policymakers–to heed this recommendation from the SOAS researchers:
It is imperative for policy makers and donor agencies to improve their understanding of the material conditions of low-income wage workers.