Response to "Fairtrade coffee fails to help the poor, British report finds"

An article was recently posted by the Globe and Mail entitled “Fairtrade coffee fails to help the poor, British report finds”. This article detailed the results of research within a publication by London University, comparing hired labour in communities where there are Fairtrade cooperatives and areas where there are not. We would like to take this time to clarify some of the issues presented in this article and comment on how Bridgehead is working toward bettering this Fairtrade system.

Although we tend to think of Fairtrade cooperatives being entirely made up of small family farms, the system does allow for a minority of the members in a cooperative to be farms that depend on labour to some extent. The concerns raised by the research deal with instances where larger farms that are members of cooperatives hire workers or where cooperative processing mills are hiring. The study found that hired workers in areas where there are Fairtrade cooperatives in certain communities in Ethiopia and Uganda are receiving lower wages than similar workers on similar farms in areas where there are no Fairtrade cooperatives.

Diego G. Gomez a small producer from the Chiapas region in Mexico. 

However, the claim that Fairtrade is the cause of this problem is not presented by the research; in fact the research paper states that they did not find a causal link. Rather, what they found was that there are specific labour market conditions in these communities that result in relatively low wages and slightly worse working conditions. One of the main findings appears to be a surplus of people looking for work in communities where there are fewer jobs.

The researchers encourage Fairtrade International to take the issue of hired labour very seriously and to implement better controls to ensure hired w
orkers are helped by the Fairtrade system. We agree with this point entirely. We all need feedback in order to become better at what we do, and the Fairtrade system is no different. It is understood that the Fairtrade system is relatively new and very complex, and thus problems will arise along the way. This valuable research makes it clear that more work needs to be done by Fairtrade International to ensure that larger farms employing hired workers should be held to higher standards.

Ian Clark, Director of Coffee for Bridgehead, with the presidents of ADIPY and ADINTEC, two of the base coops in CODECH located in Concepcion Huista, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. 

This does not influence our position that there are significant benefits of Fairtrade that lend to our continued support of the system – namely, price minimums to ensure the small-scale farmers who grow our coffee are protected from the volatile coffee market that can often drop below the cost of production and greatly improved access to international buyers that allows these farmers to participate in the high quality and higher value specialty coffee market. In fact, the research does not indicate that Fairtrade failed in its mission of improving the livelihood of small-scale rural farmers and it was found that the small-scale farmers in these communities were doing relatively well. 

Bridgehead purchases all of its coffee on Fairtrade terms from cooperatives of small-producers that are well managed and capable of exporting excellent quality coffee. All of the coffee we purchase is organic certified and meets minimum price standards that ensure the costs of production are met in addition to premiums for social investment, organic premiums to cover the cost of organic production and quality premiums that represent the higher value of top quality coffees. In addition, we actively seek cooperatives that are making investments in quality and transparency that allow us to source coffee from specific members who are producing extraordinary coffee. The approach of working with certified cooperatives in this way allows remotely located, small-scale farmers who would otherwise never have the opportunity to participate in the international coffee market to see significant increases in revenue and economic security through the skillful production of excellent coffee.

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1 comment

  • FairTrade is not 100% better than noihtng if it is benefiting some at the expense of others.You are right in pointing out that FairTrade benefits some people, but it is very possible that this is sometimes at the expense of other producers who are forced out of business because they can’t compete against the FairTrade subsidised production.Feel free to see my comments at the PovertyMatters blog for more detail. I agree that people shouldn’t be too critical unless they have a better alternative, and I make a suggestion of how the positive impact of FairTrade on some communities could continue, but the negative effects on other producers caused by market distortions can be removed.What do you think of the issue of FairTrade promoting further production, leading to lower market prices, when low market prices is largely what FairTrade was set up to try and overcome?


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