When I first heard about the washing machines, I thought, “Really?” I used to hear about so many other ways to spend Fair Trade premium funds….like healthcare programs, scholarships for children, etc…. that it surprised me to hear that the farm workers on this Fair Trade flower farm in Cotopaxi, Ecuador, had chosen to buy washing machines with their premium.
I asked one of the workers about it. Her statement was very clear: “I used to spend my Sundays, every single one, from 8am to 1pm down in the river washing my family’s clothes by hand. Now I spend it with my family. We go to church together. I take my children to see their grandparents. We have lunch together. I got my Sundays back!”
This made me think about the assumptions we tend to make about people and their needs, especially about those we mean to “benefit” with development assistance or even through Fair Trade. In this case, it was totally clear that nobody knew better about what the workers on this farm in Ecuador needed than the farm workers themselves. They wanted their Sundays back.
Those workers, most of them women, not only bought washing machines; some of them bought computers and invested in computer and English classes for their kids, and even dreamed of buying houses for their families. They met together and decided to dream big. They decided, against the well-intentioned advice from the farm manager, to invest in a plot of land where they’ll construct houses for each farm worker. The manager told me: “I guess I am more conservative than the workers. I thought to myself: houses for everyone? That’s impossible. But now that I see how much progress they’ve made and how enthusiastic they are with the project, I’m glad they made the decision.”
Workers are negotiating a subsidized loan from the Ecuadorian government to begin building the homes. Since many of the workers currently rent, they are planning to build the houses with the loans and take out mortgages. And, with what they save from not paying rent, they’ll pay the mortgages. The Fair Trade premium will help with many of the expenses to get everything ready on the land and to begin building the houses.
The farm workers told me they rely on future flower sales on Fair Trade terms to get premium to continue this project. Farm workers and management have a similar objective: increase Fair Trade sales.
As somebody who knows so many people with professional degrees in Ecuador who do not own homes, I felt very inspired to learn from this example.
The lessons learned from these workers in Ecuador are helping us to create similar impact for farm workers in coffee. The challenges are similar, but there are significant differences. For example, migrant workers are a lot more common in coffee, and figuring out how Fair Trade could help them in a way that makes sense to them will be a difficult but inspiring task.