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Fairtrade-affiliated farms in Ethiopia and Uganda are failing to deliver on the goal of improving living standards for the lowest paid workers, according to research published by academics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), United Kingdom, last month (24 May). [1]
The four-year project compared working conditions at coffee, tea and flower farms selling crops into Fairtrade-certified markets with those at farms not linked to Fairtrade. It found that workers — particularly women — in either type of farm are “desperately deprived” when it comes to issues such as wages and education. But in some cases, those at Fairtrade-affiliated farms were “significantly worse paid, and treated” — for example, they might be prevented from using community services such as health clinics and sanitation facilities.
The report, funded by the UK Department for International Development, fuelled lively debates across the media, with the Fairtrade Foundation, the UK charity that licenses a widely used mark added to fair-trade products, asserting that it had found flaws in the study and that progress is being made to help poor agricultural labourers. [2, 3]

“Too much of the PR for Fairtrade has been based on evaluations they have commissioned from 'research partners' rather than fully independent or properly academic research”

Christopher Cramer, SOAS 

In an article in The Observer, Christopher Cramer, a development economist at SOAS and one of the report’s lead authors, defended the research findings and said they could feed into efforts to establish more relevant auditing processes to ensure decent pay and working conditions. [4]
I asked Cramer to explain how he thought auditing processes should be improved. All workers, irrespective of farm size should be sampled, he tells me. In the past, wage auditing by the Fairtrade Foundation has focused on farms that employ 20 workers or more — a strategy that has “no justification” in regions where smaller farms are widespread. He adds that local or international trade unions could help with wage monitoring.
In Cramer’s view: “Too much of the PR for Fairtrade has been based on evaluations they have commissioned from 'research partners' that in many cases appear to have done a rushed job rather than fully independent or properly academic research.”
And when it comes to labelling fair-trade products — an area the report flags up as requiring far more clarification — Cramer says the Fairtrade Foundation should “focus more on wages and occupational health and safety, and ensure that all claims to benefit the poorest are verifiable”.
But there is some optimism along with the criticism. Cramer says that growing mobile phone use among workers is helping independent field researchers assess working conditions. “It is now easy to get to interview workers — as we did — without going through their employers or local political bosses,” he explains. “Workers have their own mobiles and can inform one another about bad employers and the best prevailing wage rates.”
Imogen Mathers is a reporter and researcher at SciDev.Net. @ImogenMathers 


[1] Christopher Cramer and others Fairtrade, employment and poverty reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda (The Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda research team, April 2014)
[2] John Vidal and Claire Provost Fairtrade accused of failing to deliver benefits to African farmworkers (The Observer, 24 May 2014)
[3] Statement: Response to SOAS report (Fairtrade Foundation, 25 May 2014)
[4] Christopher Cramer Harsh truths are necessary if Fairtrade is to change the lives of the very poor (The Observer, 24 May 2014)