Fair Trade – What does it mean & why should you buy into it?

We started selling Fair Trade coffee just under a month ago, and since we have had so many requests for more information on Fair Trade principles, we thought we would give you a quick overview (using the coffee market as an example) of why the Fair Trade mark matters. Please keep in mind however that Fair Trade principles are also prevalent in the handicrafts, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fresh fruit and flower markets.

Coffee is the world’s second most valuable traded commodity, behind only crude oil (for making petrol). It is in fact the US’s largest food import. This should mean that those who produce coffee and work on coffee plantations should be doing very well? Wrong! Unfortunately not, and this is where the Fair Trade movement comes into play.

Conditions for coffee workers on large plantations vary widely, but most are paid the equivalent to sweatshop wages and toil under abysmal working conditions. Considering how well the oil rich countries on our planet are doing, it does not make sense, does it? In Guatemala for example, coffee pickers have to pick a 45kg quota in order to get the minimum wage of less than R25/day. A recent study of plantations in Guatemala showed that over half of all coffee pickers don’t receive the minimum wage, in violation of Guatemalan labour laws. Workers interviewed in the study were also subject to forced overtime without compensation, and most often did not receive their legally-mandated employee benefits.

We’ve got delicious Fair Trade coffee from Bean There

Burundian Musema Ground Coffee

Because of this situation, many coffee workers bring their children to help them in the fields in order to pick the daily quota. These child workers are not officially employed and therefore not subject to labour protections. Working conditions on these plantations are harsh; as migrant farm workers, many workers sleep in temporary shelters with rows of bunk beds. Many times they cook, wash and bathe from the same water source. The study of coffee plantations in Guatemala revealed that only 13% of coffee workers have completed their primary education. Most were not provided with legally-mandated adequate health care.

Coffee is a vital source of export for many of the developing countries that grow it. Some 20 million families in 50 countries now work directly in the cultivation of coffee; an estimated 11 million hectares of the world’s farmland are dedicated to coffee cultivation. That’s a lot of hard working families that should be benefiting from this booming market!

So where is all that money going?

The global commodity chain for coffee involves a string of producers, middlemen, exporters, importers, roasters, and retailers before reaching the consumer. Most small farmers sell directly to middlemen exporters who are commonly referred to as coyotes. These coyotes are known to take advantage of small farmers, paying them below market price for their harvests and keeping a high percentage for themselves. As these middlemen or coyotes do almost all the buying from the small farmer co-ops, they have the power to buy the coffee at almost any price that they dictate.

Then there are the large coffee estate owners that usually process and export their own harvests that are sold at the prices set by the New York Coffee Exchange. Unfortunately however, extremely low wages (R20-R25/day) and poor working conditions for farm workers characterise coffee plantation jobs. So either way, it’s the farm workers that are not getting their fair share.

This is where the Fair Trade principles come into play. Fair Trade is an organised movement and market-based approach to alleviating global poverty and promoting sustainability. The movement advocates the payment of a fair price and basic social and environmental standards to those who produce the goods. This is especially true when the goods are being produced in very poor countries and then exported to very wealthy countries.

This means that by choosing to buy Fair Trade accredited goods where possible, you are not inadvertently supporting unjust trade. The workers that produced the Fair Trade coffee are being paid fair wages for their labour and are not being cheated by the middle men.

The good news is that the untold story of the gourmet coffee boom that has been leaving small farmers behind is being shared. In June 2008, it was estimated that over 7.5 million disadvantaged producers and their families were benefiting from Fair Trade funded infrastructure, technical assistance and community development projects. Fair Trade is bringing some small farmers into the boom.

Best of all, crops have to be grown in harmony with nature to receive Fair Trade accreditation. That means, no nasty chemicals, respect for bio-diversity and superior quality.

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