Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) is redefining its business plan to expand the supply of fair trade certified goods produced on estates (particularly coffee). In addition to increased scale, FTUSA says that certifying goods from estates will “empower” farm workers on those estates through management compliance with fair trade standards. The draft FTUSA standard (Version 1.0 www.transfairusa.org/certification/standards ) is specific to “Farm Workers” but will also set a precedent for any other products produced with employees. And it will have implications on fair trade certification of other parts of a product’s production or supply chain beyond the source farm or factory. Our vision of fair trade is a sustainable food supply chain where all workers have fair treatment and access to their labor rights.
FTUSA’s new approach makes the fair treatment of employees (in addition to small growers/cooperative producers) the core consideration to determine whether a FTUSA certified product is fairly produced. There are already some FLO certified goods from ‘for hire’ situations like bananas, cut-flowers and tea. Coffee is 70% of the fair trade market in the US. The implications of this “worker empowerment” goal are far reaching and call for careful analysis of FTUSA’s new labor standards, monitoring mechanisms and governance structures. This change has important implications for fair trade consumers in the USA, workers in producer countries and workers along the food supply chain.
FTUSA and FLO’s current fair-trade certifications apply to the primary producer, be it plantation or small holder, but from the Teamster perspective; a union representing workers in transport, warehousing, food processing and retail sales, we have raised with FLO and now raise with FTUSA that companies transporting, processing, warehousing and selling fair trade label products also have a responsibility to fair trade consumers to apply fair trade principles in their enterprises. We are aware of several cases where chocolate (i.e. Theo Chocolate) and coffee companies are anti-union but still sell their goods with a fair-trade label. An initial step in this direction would be transparency in reporting on the entire supply chain; from field to retail sale.
Fair Trade and Labor
The labor movement and fair trade consumers are allies in the struggle for social justice. We share core beliefs in the dignity of work, human rights, democracy, solidarity, ending poverty, and equitable and sustainable development. We also share the concerns of fair trade consumers that an increasing number of certification schemes (i.e. Rainforest Alliance, UTZ) are created by corporations who do not share our core beliefs and whose labels are motivated by capturing the fair trade premium, not to improve the livelihoods of folks along production chains.
We in labor are very grateful for the solidarity of the anti-sweatshop movement in the global garment industry. On campuses, in churches, in local government and at the retail store, consumers have told major labels that they don’t want to buy goods at the cost of labor rights. There are growing signs that this movement has reached a tipping point; that many major brands may seek to ensure union representation and fair treatment at their garment factories around the world. Is this an opportunity for a coalition of labor and fair trade/organic/kosher/halal/vegan consumers to do the same thing in the food industry?
A Trade Union is the Path to Worker Empowerment
FTUSA’s new emphasis invites business partners who are motivated by profit maximization an opportunity to make adjustments that will provide access to the growing fair trade consumer market. That market is made up of consumers who are willing to pay a premium if the product reliably reflects their social justice values. FTUSA must set high standards, iron clad monitoring and enforcement mechanisms and insulate itself from the inevitable pressures on the FTUSA governance structures to weaken standards from the new business partners. The business partners FTUSA seeks to engage now will undoubtedly remain true to their profit maximization goal. Thus, if an opportunity presents itself to cut corners while keeping prices high, they will cut the corner. FTUSA needs to establish a bulwark against these pressures.
In the labor movement (in the USA and most countries abroad) our overwhelming consistent experience is that employers will use every means available to deny their workers independent representation through a union. Authoritarian governments also repress independent trade unions to appease their supporters and silence our voice. National labor laws and international labor standards are the result of generations of workers’ struggle to enshrine our rights and our values in the rule of law. Of course there are exceptional employers who do not exploit workers to increase profits; at least until they get acquired by other firms. Standards cannot be set based on the exceptions.
Farm managers hold huge power over workers through their control of employment, pay checks and working environment. Workers’ Committees convened by management are not only subject to manipulation but usually prevent the establishment of an independent union. Paternalistic labor relations can temporarily create a reasonable work environment, but our experience is that when a budget crisis hits, employers will cut labor costs first unless the workers have autonomous control of their organization through a union.
A union free from employer control is the very best mechanism to monitor compliance with labor standards. Periodic inspections from even the most experienced monitors are subject to manipulation. We propose a worker-centered monitoring and compliance process. In an estate where a union does not exist, a local union designated by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) would participate early in the certification process and would work with producers and their employees in designing and implementing a worker monitoring and compliance process. The ultimate goals of this effort will be to create a democratic process, free from employer intimidation or interference, which leads to union representation freely chosen by those employees. The union would be co-responsible for the certification. An independent group would be made available to arbitrate disputes not resolved between management and the workers.
Standards Proposals that Encourage an Independent Worker Voice
- Trade union representatives in the food chain and the IUF should be included in the highest governing bodies of FTUSA. The union representatives will be selected through mutual agreement between FTUSA directors and the IUF.
- Trade union representatives from the USA, IUF and producer countries should be extensively consulted on the establishment of the Farm Worker Standard.
- Estate management and the trade union are co-responsible for the fair trade certification. This includes giving the trade union full access to all audit reports. The union has the right to withdraw its support, which ends certification. Alternatively, a dispute resolution mechanism ending with a binding independent arbitration would be established.
Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining
- A trade union freely chosen by the employees that is their voice in collective bargaining, without employer influence or interference, should be a key goal and the basic standard for Freedom of Association compliance.
- Where a trade union does not exist, a progress standard will demand a process towards a timely certification of free and fair representation election.
- Full access to the employees by a union designated by the IUF without prior notification will begin during the certification process.
- Where one does not exist, a collective bargaining agreement will be negotiated within three months of union recognition.
Conditions of Employment
- The minimum salary standard should be a living wage.
- The freely chosen union at the worksite should be the key component of labor standards monitoring with the support from the IUF.
- FTUSA will provide an independent entity for challenges to certification and workplace dispute resolution through a new entity to be called the Independent Labor Rights Arbitrator (ILRA).
- Tracking and transparent reporting on the supply chain for certified products.
Fair Trade Premium
- The trade union will decide on the use of the fair trade premium.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters submitted these comments to Fair Trade USA on its Draft Farm Workers Standard.