How Just is Fair Trade?

How Just is Fair Trade?

August 24, 2017

“Night after night in this cheap coffee pot
I brood upon our lives. I rot. They rot.”
Alfred Hayes, “In A Coffee Pot,” 
Partisan Review (February-March, 1934)

What’s In Fair Trade?

The fate of those oppressed by major coffee chains has become common fare to speak about. As people turn their noses in disgust at Starbucks’ coffee sourcing (as they pay next to nothing to the farmers of their beans), they offer the strengths of Fair Trade coffee as a response to this problem (1). Fair Trade seeks to combat the ethical dilemma of ordering coffee: Children in Honduras are 40% of the harvesters, and earn roughly $12 US a month (2). Eradicating child labor is at the forefront of the campaign; by paying more for coffee (an agreed upon international standard for a “fair” wage for workers), families wouldn’t have to send their children off to labor and pull them from schooling. Workers aren’t left well-off by this solution, but there’s no bondage forced on by families, and farms are made to pay their workers better. Fair Trade certified growers would get more business, and thus, more workers; the system would grow until “fair” wages are the norm across the coffee growing world. Or so the story goes, at least.

Cartoon depiction of slavery on Starbucks farms (3)

Fair Trade coffee isn’t just problematic, it’s a non-starter when we’re talking about ethically changing the coffee industry. 

The problem is, though, Fair Trade coffee isn’t just problematic, it’s a non-starter when we’re talking about ethically changing the coffee industry. For starters, Fair Trade doesn’t actually help the poorest growers of coffee get out of poverty. In a recent study on Fair Trade growers in Costa Rica, it was discovered that, “FT certification does increase incomes, but only for skilled coffee growers and farm owners. There is no evidence that many workers, including unskilled seasonal coffee pickers, benefit from certification.” (4) This immediately presents a multitude of problems:

If Fair Trade coffee only serves to line the pockets of the (relatively) monied, then can it actually combat the practical enslavement of coffee growers?

The House Always Wins

This isn’t to callously understate the exploitation that farmworkers face and say that we should do nothing, but the opposite. Taking the problems of coffee farming seriously means admitting that fair trade coffee merely continues the oppression of coffee farmworkers. The stated goals of the Fair Trade industry are to eradicate slavery, child labor, and the oppression of women. Those groups — slaves, child laborers, and women — are forced to the outskirts of labor, and kept from ownership and skilled production (5). The farms always win, and their workers cannot make gains.

While Karl Marx could have predicted the efficacy of a market-based, voluntary solution to slavery, this point bears reiterating. Small-to-medium sized farms, farms that press workers into servitude gain both PR and moderate increases to income. (6) Farmworkers, the group ostensibly slated to gain from Fair Trade, have seen no rise in income — those who harvest the beans have had no respite from the feel-good campaign.

Enjoying a cup of coffee isn’t a moral stance, but we can still choose to stand with those in need. 

That’s globally — from farmworkers, to truck drivers and deliverypeople, to baristas; the global nature of the coffee industry means that many jobs are implicated and many lives are hurt and strengthened by coffee.



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