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413. Farmworkers and Fair Trade

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:

  1. “Wage employment in areas producing agricultural exports is widespread.”
  2. “People who depend on access to wage employment in export commodity production are typically extremely poor.”
  3. “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.


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.



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.




  • Miguel says:

    Great analysis, Michael. I want to reinforce your point about smallholders being both a significant source of demand for and supply of waged labor for coffee production. In a survey of 166 coffee workers in Brazil and Colombia that my former project conducted late last year, we found that:
    – 30% of workers were also smallholder coffee farmers
    – another 41% had family members who were smallholder coffee farmers

    This is just a sample but it was a significant one for the population of workers with whom we were working.

    Thanks for continue highlighting this issue. It is time for the coffee industry to significantly increase our farm worker IQ. The industry needs to get more involved on this issue so we can understand it better and create alternatives to improve this reality.

  • Scott Brant says:

    Thank you Micheal for keeping the conversation going….or should I say holding our feet to the fire!

    A moment for me was when I was in Guatemala as a Cup of Excellence judge and we went through our week of evaluation and selection. One of the winning farms was in the north and I later visited a coffee co-op in the same region to discuss ways to improve quality and prices. I found out that many of the coffee farmers in the co-op were also workers on the same farm that won the COE competition. It was my first realization that smallholders were also dependent on the farm work of larger holdings.

    My work with the newly forming Coffeelands Foundation has included farm worker/ wage worker issues to the categories of funding by the Foundation. Yet I don’t know of specific non-profits working on these issues. Do you or your readers have any suggestions?

    As an aside, I have sent you the latest revision of the Foundation mission to your CRS email.

    All the best, and again, thank you.

    Scott Brant
    For the Coffeelands Foundation

  • Nora Burkey says:

    Thanks for responding to this article. I too read the article, though with a lot of skepticism. I most certainly do not think Fair trade is the answer to all the problems in the coffee industry, but I also believe there are nuances to the farm worker problem that were not discussed or even brought up in the summary of this report. Daniel Jaffee does a fantastic job of discussing farm workers in his book about Fair trade, Brewing Justice. He says that the very fact that Fair trade has created a demand for farm workers means it has contributed to even more economic opportunity for many families in Mexico–conventional and Fair trade families alike. In other words, when Fair trade families must hire laborers, they create more economic opportunities in their communities, and thus Fair trade extends its reach.

    It seems entirely unfair to me to highlight Fair trade in a discussion about mistreatment of farm workers. Sure, the secret is out, and Fair trade cooperatives and small holders do rely on farm workers, but it’s no secret that every other farm does as well. It would be unfair to assume without any evidence that Fair trade farm workers are somehow treated better because they are Fair trade, but I think it would also be unfair to assume that autonomous small holders even has as much power to pay their workers as well as large plantation owners can pay. Not to mention many Fair Trade small holders rely on indigenous, traditional payment structures to compensate their laborers.

    Jaffee also highlights how this hiring of wage labor often leaves Fair trade families with little to no money at the end of the harvest, and describes how one reality is that Fair trade is more useful in benefiting families that have more producers than consumers (i.e. more people who work the farm, less people in school or with other jobs). Hiring wage labor is therefore also a sign that the money Fair trade families take in for being Fair trade goes right back out again to their farm workers. This kind of finding becomes tricky. In providing education to children of coffee farmers through Fair trade premiums, are we not turning people into consumers rather than producers, effectively creating a higher demand for farm workers, and also less money for Fair trade families at the end of the year? If the answer is not: stop educating children so they can all work the warm, we must accept that perhaps farm workers are both a critical and important sign of progress, but a progression that we must respond to fiercely to ensure its fairness. Some questions that follow for me are: what must our demands be for farm workers and how can we promote their rights while still allowing autonomy in coffee-growing communities? Jaffee’s research was in indigenous villages, which tend to have not only their own traditional systems of labor, but also autonomy from national laws.

    Scott, as for your question for whether there are non-profits working specifically with farm workers, yes, I know of at least one. Planting Hope is a non-profit in Nicaragua that provides “Coffee Camps” for migrant laborers. Children often travel with their parents to the coffee lands during the harvest, so the camps provide child care for the parents, medical care, food security, and more. My non-profit, The Chain Collaborative, is teaming up with Planting Hope to create an adapted form of Coffee Camps for this coming year, and we are working on a manual in both English and Spanish that will provide information to other communities about how to create their own self-sustaining camps for laborers.

    Nora Burkey
    The Chain Collaborative
    Executive Director

  • Rodney North says:

    I’ve read the SOAS report thoroughly and have some issues with the data collection, methodology etc, but will not get into that here. Rather I want to address one of the themes that I infer from this post, and which has been much discussed elsewhere in reaction to the SOAS study―that is the assertion that the Fair Trade system ought to be expanded to address the needs of farm workers.

    In response to that suggestion I raise the following:
    • Our reaction, too, to the data on the struggles of the East African farm workers was ‘duh’. While grim & sobering, it was not news to us.
    • While the needs of farm workers, especially temporary & migrant workers, are unquestionable & great we know that when Fair Trade certification was built & launched in the 80’s it was not designed to tackle those problems. We think the record shows that Fair Trade is nevertheless a great tool – when used as originally envisioned – but that does not make it the right tool for every purpose, just as you don’t use a shovel to water your garden.
    • Conversely, certifiers & others have been trying to apply Fair Trade & the power of the seal, the power of the related auditing, etc, to improve workers’ pay & conditions, etc for over 15 years, starting with tea plantations and later expanding to bananas, citrus and more recently to coffee. We think the record is pretty clear that this has not worked as hoped or advertised. Besides the SOAS report itself, you can look at the powerful new book by Sarah Besky about Fair Trade certified tea plantations:
    “The Darjeeling Distinction”
    • The Fair Trade market is, at best, a small slice of the market for any commodity. For ex, coffee is, of course, where Fair Trade has the most traction, and yet it only represents about 5% of the US coffee market. I mention that because this means that Fair Trade is not only a specific tool, but also one with very real limits. In other words, there are only so many chances to drive change via an import of Fair Trade coffee.
    • That, in turn, matters because the move to certify coffee plantations means not an _expansion_ of Fair Trade to serve new stake-holders (ie workers) so much as a _re-direction_ of activity _away_ from where Fair Trade pretty much does work as claimed (small farmer co-ops) _towards_ where it doesn’t deliver so much benefit (plantations) & little transformative change.
    • This dynamic is all the more interesting given the fact that many small farmers are also workers on the operations of larger land holders. So if plantations begin to supply more and more of the limited Fair Trade market we could have a situation where small-farmer X sees her co-op sell less and less to the Fair Trade market while the plantation she sometimes works on begins to sell more & more to the Fair Trade market. So, as a _farmer_ she’s losing something that was working in a powerful way and which was a force for more equality in her community, even while as a _temporary worker_ she’s ‘gaining’ something that much less exciting and that is actually reinforcing the dominant role the local plantation in her community. (
    As this is not just a story I conjured up. The idea first came to me when I read a British article years ago that quoted a worker on a East African Fair Trade certified tea plantation. He mentioned that the reason he came to work on the plantation was that he was no longer able to sustain himself as a small-scale coffee farmer.
    And – by the way – if the system begins to demand that the small farmer increase the wages _she_ pays temp labor she’ll be not only be worse off, as a farmer, but also even less able to compete with the local plantation, upon which she’ll be more & more dependent upon as an employee. I hate to appear to pit one impoverished person against another, but have to raise this.

    I lay all this out so as to challenge what so many are saying (mostly elsewhere in the media) – that the ‘obvious’ course of action is to ‘expand’ Fair Trade to solve the labor problem.

    At Equal Exchange we admit that we don’t know what the solution is, only that we think that the solutions we’ve seen promoted or suggested so far (extend Fair Trade to still more plantations &/or raise the Fair Trade labor standards on small farms) are unlikely to work _and_ have many, many potentially negative side-effects, such that much good work and progress could be undone.

    So if those are two directions we don’t support, what are we for? For one thing we’d like to see more done so that those who are now small-scale farmers can not only keep their land, but actually make an income that is high enough, and stable enough, such that they no longer need to seek work on larger farms and plantations. Basically – change the rules to help convert part-time small-scale farmers in to _full-time_ farmers. (I know that’s a gross simplification of rural household & labor economics, but this comment is way too long already…)

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for the comment. As always, good to hear from you.

      I think there may be two dynamics at work here.

      One is The Farmworker Problem, with a capital F. It is The Problem of Labor and its Relation to Capital. A problem structural problem that requires a systematic response–the kind of response that Fair Trade was set up to provide for smallholder coffee farmers.

      The second relates to more common farmworker problems, with a lower-case f, as in “I have some farmworker problems with one of my supply-chain partners.” The kinds of problems that may be effectively addressed through narrower responses in the context of specific supply chain operations.

      In relation to The Farmworker Problem, you have said here and elsewhere that it is not Fair Trade’s to solve. I think that is perfectly fair. You inferred from my post that I believe Fair Trade should expand to include a systemic response to The Farmworker Problem. That’s not necessarily the case. I know that, as you and Harriet Lamb and others have pointed out, Fair Trade in coffee is still working out kinks in terms of delivering on its promises to smallholders and has plenty of work to do there without concerning itself with another massive structural challenge.

      I struggle a bit more with the responsibility of Fair Trade in relation with the second type of farmworker problem. With the idea that Fair Trade can absolve itself of injustices and human suffering in its supply chains because they were not the specific types of injustice and suffering Fair Trade was set up to address. I feel the same way about other certifications and even (perhaps especially) non-certified supply chains. Does the fact that a roaster didn’t set out to resolve The Farmworker Problem absolve it from responsibility to at least try to address farmworker problems in its supply chain?

      Absolutely not trying to flame anyone here, just searching for the appropriate way for all of us to engage with a supply chain challenge that most of us were not set up to address but one that demands our attention and isn’t going away anytime soon.


  • Michael Sheridan says:

    Author’s Note:

    I have been writing extensively for a long time. Since the mid-1990s, when I did a few brief stints at newspapers in Latin America, that writing has often been for external audiences.

    In writing, I take great care in choosing my words. On this blog, I have addressed a lot of touchy subjects over the years. It is a source of some satisfaction that even when I have addressed difficult issues or taken unpopular positions on those issues, the dialogue has been (mostly) constructive. I think that is partly a result of the fact that I have been careful in how I have addressed those issues. In the words I have chosen. In this case, I did not choose my words as carefully as I might have.

    In the original post, I wrote that the first of the SOAS report’s top three messages was “FAIR TRADE COFFEE’S DIRTY LITTLE LABOR SECRET IS OUT.” I knew the language was chippy, and considered whether I might soften it before publishing. I didn’t, but I should have. Not because I don’t stand by the observations that follow about the fluidity of labor categories in the coffeelands. I do. As we collectively seek greater understanding of farmworkers in coffee, it will be important to understand that binary definitions are often ill-suited for realities that are messier. But I think the language of the header distracted from those observations, and invited readers to respond in kind, especially on Daily Coffee News, where this post was republished under the screaming headline “Opinion: ‘Fair Trade’s dirty little labor secret is out.'”

    The fact that this blog has succeeded (occasionally) in provoking constructive exchange on challenging issues in coffee and sustainability is the reason I keep doing it. I know from comments made online and off that many readers value the blog for this reason. So I will continue to write here about the challenges we face and the opportunities we see in our work in the field and our engagement in the marketplace, even if the issues I raise are uncomfortable. But I will choose my words more carefully in the hopes of keeping the comments constructive.

    Meantime, I have changed the language of the offending header here to read: “THE LINES BETWEEN LABOR CATEGORIES ARE BLURRIER IN REALITY THAN IN THE FAIR TRADE COFFEE NARRATIVE.” It is not as catchy, that’s for sure. But it is an accurate summary of the observations that follow. More importantly, it is the point I was trying (unsuccessfully, it seems) to get across.


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