CFTN response to SOAS report on Fairtrade in Ethiopia and Uganda

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London recently published a critical report on the working conditions at four Fairtrade certified organizations in Ethiopia and Uganda.

As many may have noticed, several media outlets have taken the findings of the study and sensationalized them to imply that Fairtrade represents a broken, hollow, and ineffective initiative in supporting the work of producers in developing communities around the world. 

We should recognize that the 4-year study brings to light critical issues faced by workers in Ethiopia and Uganda, and that the working conditions described are in fact deplorable. However, it is worth noting that the study focuses predominantly on temporary and casual hired labour situations — albeit a critical focus — but does not apply to Fairtrade across the board. These workers are often the most disadvantaged within the rural populations and represent some of the most challenging situations to address.

To clarify the role of Fairtrade in addressing these issues, Harriet Lamb, CEO of Fairtrade International, recently wrote in the Huffington Post UK, "The FAIRTRADE Mark does not mean that the product comes from a few hand-selected sites where conditions are perfect. It means that Fairtrade is working for a better deal alongside vulnerable farmers and workers as they tackle very real problems in their communities."

Fairtrade International currently represents 1149 producer organizations in 70 countries and 19 National Fairtrade Organizations operating in 24 countries. It would be wrong to assume that the findings of the study within these two countries can be attributed to the more than 1.2 million workers worldwide, especially when there is a growing body of research that shows the contrary.

In fact, in some of the most "developed" countries in the world, we also struggle to regulate the working conditions of migrant workers who often come from many of the same impoverished regions that Fairtrade works directly to support. There are an estimated 38,000 temporary foreign agricultural workers, or migrant farm workers in Canada — many of which are exposed to issues of insecure employment, below-minimum wages, poor working and living conditions, and compromised rights to organize. Additionally, health and safety problems are common and often unreported, as these workers face many challenges in accessing healthcare and insurance.

Comparatively, Ethiopia and Uganda represent two of the most impoverished countries in the world. Respectively, 28 percent and 25 percent of each countries population live below the poverty line, and the national life expectancy is 63 and 55. Additionally, lack of education, access to health care, child mortality, HIV, lack of transportation infrastructure, and civil strife are all significant issues within these regions. These are not issues that can be solved overnight.

This does not excuse or justify the working conditions described in the study, but may offer perspective in how challenging these issues can be for policy makers and industry stakeholders in addressing them. 

It is also worth noting that the Mpanga Tea Producers looked at in the study sold less than 1 percent of its tea on Fairtrade terms. While many of the labour issues identified in the study should not be ignored, the development benefits from Fairtrade certification will understandably be hindered by a lack of these sales.

In Canada, there are currently 19 Fair Trade Towns and 8 Fair Trade Campuses, each demonstrating strong awareness of international labour issues, and more importantly, a desire to do actively work toward improving these conditions. 

The SOAS study has drawn our attention to the fact that FLO is not a blanket solution, and that maybe we need to be mindful of just how significant these global challenges are. But we should be careful not to forget that FLO still represents an unprecedented scope of co-operation in resolving with these challenges. And when it comes to making a decision at our local grocery shelves, Fairtrade still represents a critical initiative in improving working conditions associated with internationally sourced products. 

More on the SOAS report: