learning from other farm workers – a lesson for coffee

I learned from the example of Ecuadorian workers in flower farms that Fair Trade can make a difference for farm workers.  I also know that banana workers in Fair Trade farms in Colombia have used Fair Trade as a tool to improve their lives.  I have met workers who finished high school, completed technical programs and even went to college with the support of Fair Trade premium.  Several workers have also been able to own a house for the first time with support of Fair Trade.  Although Fair Trade is much more than community development projects, talking with those workers one can tell that Fair Trade has supported significant and transformational change for them, their families and communities.

Analyzing those two successful situations where Fair Trade has been able to provide a significant positive impact for farm workers, there are a couple of lessons that we could apply for coffee:

–          Strict standards – standards need to protect workers, especially in those areas where they might be more vulnerable (application of pesticides, potential accidents, extra hours, minimum wages, right to organize, etc).  Standards also need to create opportunities for partnerships between workers and management

–          Training, training and training – farm workers in Ecuador received a lot of training that helped them to work together in a more effective way, to identify their most important needs in a participatory and inclusive way, to select and implement community projects with the Fair Trade premium, to understand their rights under the law and under Fair Trade and to effectively negotiate and achieve better working conditions in partnership with the farm management.

–          Close support to workers – training is not enough.  In the case of Ecuador, those workers received external support to understand their rights and what they could or needed to do.  Organizing general assemblies where all workers participate and provide ideas is a big task; however, receiving the right support and coaching can make a big difference for workers and make Fair Trade more effective

–          Open-minded management – in the cases of Ecuador and Colombia, progressive management that respects workers and is open to explore partnership opportunities that benefit both workers and the farm has been a key component of these successful stories

–          Sales – farms need to sell a good portion of their product in Fair Trade terms in order to generate enough benefits to workers and farmers.  In the case of bananas, for some farms in Colombia this percentage has been over 60% and the results have been impressive.  In the case of Ecuador, in those farms that at least 15% of their flowers have been sold in Fair Trade terms, workers have been able to achieve significant impact.  The certification is only the first step.  Healthy sales in Fair Trade terms facilitates sustainable supply chains in the long term

–          A progressive union – in Colombia, the local union has done a remarkable job supporting and training workers and improving working conditions.  The union achieved this by working with the farm management more than fighting it.  Having both management and unions open to dialogue and cooperation has made a huge difference in Colombia.  In Ecuador, where there is not a strong presence of unions in the flower sector, workers committees in Fair Trade farms have been able to work, negotiate, and partner with management directly.

These are some of the lessons my colleagues, partners and I are trying to incorporate in the work we are beginning to do with farm workers in coffee.  We hope to replicate the success that Fair Trade has in other products in order to create a more sustainable alternative for farm workers and farmers but also for consumers who want a more sustainable and fair cup of coffee.

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2 thoughts

  1. Hi Miguel, great work, it is what we are also trying to do with responsible artisanal and small scale gold miners through Fairtrade and Fairmined certification…perhaps another step towards empowerment of small producers is for Fairtrade farmers and coffee growers to communicate with Fairtrade and Fairmined miners. As you indicate with the union-management issues, dialogue is key.

  2. Thank you, Cristina. Yes, I believe that fostering direct conversations between producers and between workers in Fair Trade helps tremendously to identify more effective ways to improve workers and farmers situation. There is a lot of knowledge that these two groups have, especially those who have been working in Fair Trade for longer

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