The Guardian reports that a study sponsored by the UK government has cast doubt on the effectiveness of Fairtrade in East Africa. Generally, the study found, wages were higher on farms that were larger, commercial and not Fairtrade-certified. Even comparing different smallholder sites, wages were generally lower in the areas dominated by Fairtrade producer organisations. Social projects, paid for partly by the Fairtrade premium, were found not to provide equal benefit to all. The researchers also reported that many of the poorest did not have access to facilities. In one Fairtrade tea co-operative the modern toilets funded with the premium were exclusively for the use of senior managers.
The study also found that young people were widely used as labourers on both Fairtrade and other farms.
"When wage workers aged over 14 years were interviewed, a very large proportion of them said they had been working since the age of 10, or even earlier. … What is clear ... is that very significant numbers of young, school-age children are having to work for wages in the production of agricultural export crops, including Fairtrade-certified commodities."
The authors said a combination of idealism and naivety could explain why Fairtrade did not reach the poorest people in Ethiopia and Uganda.
"One possibility is that Fairtrade producer organisations are always established in significantly poorer, more marginalised areas where an accumulation of disadvantages means smallholder farmers are unable to pay even the paltry wages offered by smallholders in other areas without Fairtrade producer organisations".
One of the authors of the report has an article about the research in Sunday's Observer.
Fairtrade International said the report's conclusions were unfair and generalised.
"In several places it compares wages and working conditions of workers in areas where small-scale Fairtrade-certified tea and coffee farmers were present with those on large-scale plantations in the same regions. The report itself identifies farm size, scale and integration into global trade chains as major factors influencing conditions for wage workers, but then its conclusions appear to be based on unfair and distorted comparisons between farms and organisations of dramatically different size, nature and means. When comparisons are based more on like-for-like situations, such as the study's own analysis of Ugandan coffee in small scale coffee production set-ups, it finds key areas where workers in areas with Fairtrade-certified farmer organisations in fact had better conditions compared with those in non-certified, such as free meals, overtime payments and loans and wage advances for workers. This is in sharp contrast to the more generalised conclusions being presented by the School of Oriental and African Studies team."
Whatever the accuracy or justice of these different views, this looks like the sort of report and comment that should be welcomed and used by all global learning programmes in English schools – the sort promoted by DfID and the ubiquitous Pearson – if they want young people to be able to judge the merits of Fairtrade (and fair trade). But will they? As Paul Vare and I argued in Education for Sustainable development: two sides and an edge (published by DEA as a Thinkpiece), schools have sometimes been more keen on promoting Fairtrade (ESD1-style) as a socio-economic strategy, than critically examining it (as in EDS2). This is an opportunity to redress any imbalance.