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Some Insights Into “Should Hired Labor Plantations Be Included in Fair Trade?”

On February 14, FTRN produced Webinar 121: “Should Hired Labor Plantations Be Included in Fair Trade?”. The 2 panelists were Ed Canty, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Fair Trade Organic Coffee Buyer; and Rodney North, Equal Exchange, The Answer Man – Information for the Public & Media. You can download the 50-min recording of webinar 121, or register for upcoming webinars, at FTRN webinars.

Some of the speakers’ main points from the webinar include comments below.


Official statement posted by GMCR at www.gmcr.com/CSR/PromotingSustainableCoffee/Statement.aspx, includes these parts:

  • We continue to believe FT offers high quality coffee to consumers AND a higher quality of life for producers.
  • We recognize there are currently different approaches from deeply committed organizations on how to make a difference in the world.
  • We encourage stakeholders to find common ground and not weaken the progress we have made.
  • We value our relationship with FTUSA, FLO, and Transfair Canada.
  • We support FTUSA efforts to innovate; including more producers in the model AND strengthening current FT groups.
  • Our ongoing commitment to cooperatives will not change.
  • We believe there is much to learn fromFTUSA’s Pilot programs

I don’t know-

  • How do migrant coffee workers vote on social premiums.
  • How does producer empowerment/ownership work in a different power structure.
  • How will FT on Estates develop leaders.
  • How will these changes affect quality.

I do know-

  • There is a need. Migrant workers without land are quite needy, but is it appropriate that Fair Trade address them?
  • There are some great estates out there.
  • It will only work if ALL producer groups (estates, farmers not in coops, etc.) judged on the same standards and criteria.
  • Bringing more groups into Fair Trade system could add traceability and accountability to an already competitive market.
  • We have much to learn from pilot data.

GMCR is looking for opportunities to work with FT Estate Pilots (Will not sell their coffee as FT).

GMCR has joined FTUSA’s Innovation Committee to review data.

We need to hold these pilots accountable as being just pilots.

Look forward to more discourse as results are collected.

Key question is really “What would hired labor plantations (Estates) need to do to be included in Fair Trade?” I don’t know if estates should be included or not, but pilots will help us determine how to best help such workers.


Equal Exchange works in many commodities, like tea, bananas & sugar, where Fair Trade has included plantations, and that experience has proven that Fair Trade should not include plantations.

Fair Trade, as intellectual property, really belongs to small farmer coops who helped create the Fair Trade system in the 80s. Nobody else should change it.

Fair Trade should be transformative & capacity building. We have seen that with coops, but even well-run plantations aren’t either one.

Uniquely Fair Trade does (or should) address imbalances of power – let’s not lose that.

Fair Trade is to change what is wrong with trade and farming – not just dull the edge. Not just to raise wages, build better housing, etc.
Fair Trade sourcing from plantations entrenches the status quo in landownership & rural power structures.
Fair Trade should never be allowed to blunt a more powerful option for change, like a real union movement on plantations.

Fair Trade Foundation, UK, 2011 Banana Impact Report says-

  • Fair Trade “has had limited impact in driving increased trade union organization”
  • Fair Trade “Workers committees are less effective than trade unions…”
  • “ … and their existence may act as a disincentive to workers to unionize”

Yes, plantations need reforms, but Fair Trade doesn’t need to be solution to that. Fair Trade has proven not to be right tool – in bananas, tea, or cut flowers. Fair Trade does not have to house every laudable initiative, as it diverts energy better put elsewhere.
And as for supply, Fair Trade coops are only selling one third of their coffee as Fair Trade. Around 500 million pounds could be available as Fair Trade from existing coops. Certifying plantations can threaten small farmer coops.


Some plantations would qualify as Fair Trade, but many would not. If an estate has great worker empowerment, let it be part of Fair Trade.

I think coops will rise to the top in Fair Trade, and bringing in other groups to Fair Trade won’t hurt.


It’s not possible for farmer coops to compete with banana plantations. If Dole and Chiquita can put the Fair Trade seal on existing supply chains, they are going to make minimum changes for plantations to get the seal.

Many advocates, and the public, think Fair Trade means small farmer coops. So, consumers will either start buying something with the wrong understanding, or the story will be lost.

Small farmer coops will lose new sales, if large buyers can just certify their existing plantation coffee as Fair Trade, instead of buying from a new source, coops.


Buyers are simply going to find new supply based on price and quality, not based on the coop or plantation nature of producers.


Fair Trade coops have changed the lives of small farmers. Fair Trade has held back some of the forces lowering the standard of living of small farmers. Communities have gotten stronger, more politically empowered, like Cepicafe in northern Peru.


We have heard a lot of concern in our coffee supply chains, from coops, about plantations entering Fair Trade coffee. That concern seems based on fear of the unknown. We assure our existing suppliers that their relationship with GMCR won’t change.

Consumption is outstripping production. Quality is key, so I don’t see a ceiling for cooperatives, but I’m not sure how much of their non-Fair Trade coffee is the quality we’re looking to buy.


We want to not lose the gains FT coops have made, and further build on those gains over the next 20 years and more. The small step of including plantations could be a barrier to a more important step of encouraging and empower coops. Sales that go to plantations are lost sales from coops.

IMO is not actively promoting a kind of FT that would source more from plantations, even though they do certify plantations as Fair Trade, like FLO.

We’re concerned that FTUSA won’t include small producers or FT pioneers on its Board, further weakening the interests of small farmers.


Unions are a step towards cooperatives. A big question in my mind is whether FT estates should be unionized, or not.


Many arguments state seductively what might be possible. We’ve seen standards usually get more slack, not more strict over time. Fair Trade doesn’t currently require strong, independent, legitimate, safe unions, so they are unlikely to be required later in time.

In the apparel industry, labor advocates say standards in Fair Trade have not been good enough.


I think there could be broader impact, or more pitfalls, by allowing non-coop farmers in FT. We welcome learning from those pilots, and should be more careful with unorganized producers.


Let plantations get other certifications (e.g. Rainforest Alliance) when they are doing good things, but they are never going to do enough to earn Fair Trade certification.

References for more information, recommended by Rodney-

Fair Trade Foundation, UK , Impact of Fairtrade Bananas: Summary and Management Response to an Independent Study, Dec. 2011


Reading Tea Leaves: The Impact of Mainstreaming Fair Trade, Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics, Lynsey Moore, 2010


Colonial Pasts and Fair Trade Futures: Changing Modes of Production and Regulation on Darjeeling Tea Plantations, Sarah Besky, Fair Trade and Social Justice. New York Univ. Press, 2010

Can a Plantation be Fair? Paradoxes and Possibilities in Fair Trade Darjeeling Tea Certification,

Sarah Besky, 2008, Anthropology of Work Review



  1. Ted Weihe

    There is a long history of U.S. labor unions trying to support cooperatives for their Latin American counterparts. While in USAID, I tried to work with these U.S. labor groups. These labor-initiated coops have failed in nearly all cases. It is difficult to graft a coop on to a labor group since they frequently do not have common objectives. Labor based coops have been very successful in Europe, Japan, Israel and to a lesser extent in the U.S. (Garment Workers insurance coop). But, in my 25 years of overseas coop work, I have not seen successful labor union formed cooperatives as successful. So any plantation strategy in which local labor unions try to unionize and form coops among their members for economic activities and Fair Trade certification is likely not to succeed. In my experience worldwide in some 50 developing countries, I cannot recall any plantation that was not exploitative of its laborers.

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