Monday, January 27, 2014

Fair Trade Disillusionment


For a number of years I worked for a grocery chain that prides itself in treating everyone, including its suppliers fairly. Thus, I had a lot of exposure to the preaching that fair trade products are superior. Some people, customers of the store and its employees, often spoke very angrily about companies that didn't participate in fair trade. I never felt passionate, but I thought that logically, shopping fair trade made sense. Consumers were promised that by paying that extra amount, the workers and producers of that product were being paid a living wage that allowed them to not only adequately provide for their families, but thrive and grow. I didn't look into it, and I didn't think much about it, yet I, along with many others, was persuaded by the superiority of fair trade

Last Wednesday, I was manning the book table at an event at the Hatcher library at the University of Michigan. The speaker was Sarah Besky and her book is entitled The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India. I like tea, so I was immediately interested for that alone, but the idea of a "fair trade plantation" intrigued me, as well. 

Being American, I was not raised with in any way a positive perception of plantations. Michigan especially prides itself on its role in the Civil War and the years leading up to it. Children in Southwest Michigan, where I grew up, can go on field trips to stops along the Underground Railroad. Plantations were definitely portrayed to us in a dark light. So how can a plantation treat its workers fairly, giving them a living wage that they can then use to become prosperous? Aren't fair trade farmers supposed to small scale?

It turns out that not only are plantations still around and thriving in the world today, that's where a lot of our stuff comes from, including those stamped fair trade. (In 2011, Fair Trade USA broke from Fair Trade International so as to be able to certify more plantations as fair trade.) As Sarah Besky pointed out, the fair trade premiums go to the plantation owners, not the workers. The Inconvenient Truth About Fair Trade, speaking about coffee co-operatives, backs her up: "[Fair Trade] merely guarantees a minimum price paid to co-operatives. Whether the co-operatives pass enough of the profits on to growers, and whether that minimum price can support living wages to begin with, are well beyond the scope of Fair Trade certification."

In Darjeeling, one does not choose to be a plantation worker, one is born into it, as were one's parents, grandparents, and children. They are not hired help, the plantation is their home, and all the workers on it are extended family because they are all descended from the original workers brought over from Nepal. The workers cannot come and go as they please because the plantation is, essentially, their entire world. Also, the region is quite remote, so there is not really any place for them to conceivably go.

It is true that being certified "fair trade" means conforming to certain guidelines. Unfortunately, these guidelines may not always harmonize with local laws and requirements. In India, for example, there are many laws in place to protect workers already. However, in the case of Darjeeling, there is, as Besky reported, only one labor officer to regulate eighty-seven plantations. Because the fair trade certified plantations are so certified, meaning they must conform to the fair trade guidelines, these plantations are largely ignored by the labor officer. In order to get their needs met, some plantation workers in Darjeeling went on hunger strike

At both stores where I now work, a gift store and a book store, we sell products marked fair trade, mostly jewelry. Having spoken personally with a couple of the people who supply stores like ours around the world with fair trade jewelry, I feel pretty confident that this is an altogether different animal than agriculture. For example, Project Have Hope is a good example of fair trade policies directly benefiting workers. I feel this muddies the perception of fair trade in the eyes of the public. 

Should we stop buying fair trade because the politics are more complicated than we realized? I think that is up to every individual to decide. I was assured by both Sarah Besky and a fellow attendant that the tea plantations in Assam operate quite differently than in Darjeeling, but does that make them better? I was given the impression not. I think we all need to better educate ourselves about where our commodities come from and what exactly is meant by the little stamp that reads "fair trade." The growers may very well be small, independents, or part of a co-operative or plantation that fairly distributes the premium. They also might not be and are currently on strike. The truth is, we really don't know until we look.

Here is another look at what fair trade means from the Huffington Post: Fact vs. Fiction: the Truth About Fair Trade.

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