A recent article in the Times On Line, “Tea workers still waiting to reap Fairtrade benefits” by Parminder Bahra reveals the contradictions the fair trade system has brought upon itself by embracing large scale plantations into a structure originally created to benefit small scale farmers in the developing world. In the Times article, tea workers in Kenya claim to have been denied the promised benefits of fair trade and “suspect that the scheme is being used to make estates appear socially responsible as demand increases in the West for Fairtrade-labelled goods.”
We are not surprised to hear of these shortcomings and abuses occurring on Fair Trade plantations. In fact, the findings presented in this article only serve to reaffirm our belief that plantations do not belong in the Fair Trade system in the first place. Equal Exchange doesn’t debate whether “good” plantations exist (for example, those where workers are treated “well”), nor whether estate workers deserve to enjoy better working conditions. They do.
Since its founding in 1986, Equal Exchange has held to the belief that the very nature of plantations is antithetical to the goals of Fair Trade, namely:
- to strengthen the autonomy of small farmer organizations;
- build a sense of ownership and control over one’s business;
- encourage entrepreneurial attitudes and a risk-taking culture;
- strengthen and build community; and
- practice and strengthen debate and participatory decision-making.
We believe that “Fair Trade” needs to mean “Small Farmer,” and that the standards which apply to Fair Trade coffee can and should be the sole standard in tea as well as coffee.
Fair Trade has achieved dramatic results in building market access for small farmers who would otherwise not have the means to invest in their business and take the necessary risks to establish markets in their own countries – let alone in the global arena. This preferential market access has been very powerful in building a link between consumers in the North and marginalized small farmers in the Global South. The multiplier effect of this market access and network of Fair Traders has had huge impact on small farmer communities.
Plantations do not need this market access. In the U.S., 98% of the tea that is sold as Fair Trade comes from plantations. Plantation owners have networks within the banking, government and export sectors of their countries. One could argue that there is almost no additional economic or social benefit deriving from Fair Trade plantation products.
Further, plantations or “estates” as they are often called, have been accused for decades of exploiting workers. Having changed little in a century, they tend to be run as small kingdoms. For these and other reasons, the role of tea plantations in Fair Trade has always been controversial from the outset. Historically, the two Fair Trade certifying agencies Max Havelaar and Transfair were locked in fundamental battle about whether plantation tea could ever really be “Fair Trade.” This was the core reason that the two organizations could not join forces. When they finally did merge in 1997, Transfair’s vision of a Fair Trade system which included virtually all models of farm production, won out and tea plantations were allowed into the system.
Equal Exchange and others believe that no matter how “benevolent” a plantation owner is, a joint labor-management council and social premiums cannot in and of themselves correct the huge imbalance of power that exists on a plantation. We just don’t believe that deep, structural goals oriented to change the playing field for small farmers can be achieved in a plantation setting. For these reasons, we are committed to building market access for small farmer tea organizations, just as we are doing in the coffee and cocoa industries.