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79. An offer you can’t refuse

I joined a workshop on Fair Trade Certification last week associated with our CAFE Livelihoods project.  The event provided participants with very practical approaches to comply with certification standards, but concerns remained about many elements of the certification process, including the new policy on unnannounced audits.

FLO-CERT, the sole organization authorized to conduct inspections for Fair Trade Certification, recently sent the following letter to smallholder farmer organizations regarding the matter.  While the idea of a surprise inspection seems reasonable, some of the conditions of the new FLO policy — both stated and unstated — raised some concerns among participating farmer organizations.

The full text of the FLO-CERT letter follows (bold mine):

Dear Producer or Trader,

FLO-CERT would like to remind all operators that we have introduced a new policy which requires us to conduct a certain number of unannounced audits each year.  Generally speaking the recipients of these audits will be the larger producers and traders in the system.

Being selected for an unannounced audit does NOT necessarily mean that you have done something wrong.  It is most often simply a risk management tool that will be used randomly to monitor compliance.

We understand the inconvenience of an unannounced audit, but would nonetheless ask that you cooperate with the auditor if s/he should appear at your premises.  Failure to do so could be considered grounds for suspension. In return for your cooperation, we will make every effort to ensure that the audit is short and causes as little disruption as possible.

Finally, we would ask that you have a designated person, as well as an alternate, who is prepared to assist the Fairtrade auditor.

Thanking you in advance for your cooperation.

What the letter fails to mention is that FLO-CERT also charges farmer organizations for the probing visits they never asked for in the first place.  And not small change — up to $4,000 or more, according to the size and status of the organization.  In short, farmer organizations on the Fair Trade register face the unpleasant choice between opening their doors (and books) to univited and expensive guests, or running the risk of having their Fair Trade Certification suspended.

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