Some Insights Into How Strong Are Labor Rights in Fair Trade

On September 21, FTRN produced Webinar 116: How Strong Are Labor Rights in Fair Trade?   The 3 panelists were Judy Gearhart, Executive Director, International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF); ...

On September 21, FTRN produced Webinar 116: How Strong Are Labor Rights in Fair Trade?   The 3 panelists were Judy Gearhart, Executive Director, International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF);  Wil Flinterman, Senior Advisor – Workers Rights and Trade Union Relations, Fairtrade International (FI); Helen Nicolás, Certification Officer, Savid Dominicana (banana company in the Dominican Republic).  You can download the 50-min recording, or register for upcoming webinars, at FTRN webinars. The topic of labor rights has become even more critical since the webinar aired live, since Fair Trade USA has split from FI, in part due different visions of whether or not to include hired labor in Fair Trade coffee, cocoa and sugar production.

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


Fairtrade International (FI) Fairtrade system does address these key issues: Secure a decent price for cocoa farmers (improve their access to market); Stop the use of child labor and forced, child labor; Remediate child workers; Secure corporate accountability commitments to third party monitoring.

None of the other third party systems address both price & corporate accountability as much as Fairtrade does.

ILRF participates in FI’s Worker Rights Advisory Committee to improve worker rights, and believes that Fairtrade has the best chance (of all third-party monitoring systems) of improving workers rights due to FI’s connections to trade unions and local, worker communities in different countries.

4 areas that ILRF seeks to improve in Fairtrade and all 3rd party systems:

Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, especially what to do when there is no union? How can Right to Organize Guarantees help?

Living Wage – does it come from negotiation process or from a commitment to calculations?

Transparency – Ensuring worker oversight and ownership in certification and monitoring.

Effective Remedy – Ensure timely and effective complaints handling

Freedom of association and collective bargaining should include: Supporting “an open attitude towards unions”, What happens when workers begin to organize?; Communicating effectively to workers about their rights, Who bears the message?, How to ensure effective non-interference?; Bargaining in good faith, What if farm managers file a ‘counter grievance’.


FI’s hired labor review is not just about revising standards – it’s about all of what FI does to advance worker rights.

Key deadlines in current review are for FLO Board to approve comprehensive hired labor strategy by end of 2011, with implementation in 2012.


There’s no doubt for us that after Fairtrade certification entered our country Dominican Republic, the working conditions in the banana sector have improved significantly especially the certified Plantations, however, note that the forerunners to fair rules for hired labor were the British supermarkets, for since our fruit began to be sent to the European markets, some social compliance were already required, such as Global Gap and ETI. As a proof of that here are some examples:

Criteria of Fairtrade Standard Before Fairtrade Certification After Fairtrade Certification
1.1 Development Potential & Capacity Building No training on labor rights and labor safety were given. A training program has been developed which covers not only the labor aspect but others.
1.3 Freedom of Labour There were no controls for child labor. Currently no farm within Fair Trade system allows child labor since frequent audits were created to prevent this from happening.
1.4 Freedom of association and collective bargaining Workers meeting about better working conditions was not allowed. Not only are they allowed to meet but also, in some cases, collective agreements have been signed by which the employment situation has improved significantly.
1.5 Conditions of employment Wages under the minimum

Extended working hours and no overtime was paid.

Wages over the minimum are guaranteed.

Overtime and holidays are paid according to legal proportions.

As a representative of a certified organization, I may not be able to speak on behalf of all, but from our point of view we have observed that the Fairtrade certification by itself helps to improve working conditions and labor rights in general, however the differentiation of criteria for hired labor and organizations of small farmers, is part of the weaknesses in the Fairtrade system because in a small farmers organization the working conditions are different from those in a plantation, since the latter has to meet a lot more requisites on labor protection than a small farmers organization. But we’ve seen how this gap is being closed little by little and we hope that, at the end, the conditions for both category of workers will be the same.

Including and introducing labor unions in Fairtrade seems very good, but unions should be certified and audited the same as other worker groups in Fairtrade.

The agricultural workforce is composed of a large percentage immigrant workers, who lack the necessary documentation to enter the social security system, however certified plantations have made the effort to do so privately, thus ensuring access to health care and even creating a internal pension fund which will become a savings account for the worker.


Worker committees will never be as independent as trade unions, so that’s why strong rights are needed if no union exists.


Worker committees, when operating in place of trade unions, often do not have ability to negotiate collectively. So, they fall short in wage bargaining, inhibiting empowerment of workers. Such committees do risk being employer-dominated.


Organized workers in the Dominican Republic in my experience are not in trade unions, as the agriculture sector doesn’t have such unions.

The wage for the agricultural sector is not currently a living wage.


Independent trade unions are saying that Fairtrade cannot work in countries where organizing rights are inhibited, for example by national laws prohibiting unions, as in China & Vietnam.


Also, in countries where cultures and traditions are hostile to organized labor, problems exist for Fairtrade, such as in the apparel plants of India.

FI is currently debating how much producer voice is appropriate in FI’s governance structure, including the voice of hired labor. One other FI staffer is working regularly on hired labor issues, especially concerning child labor.

Rather than addressing labor issues along the entire supply chain, including in developed countries plants, Fairtrade is trying to first strengthen labor rights at the bottom of supply chains.

It would be lovely if Fairtrade required the existence of independent trade unions as a requirement for certification, but unions don’t always operate in countries where FI works. FI would rather facilitate an environment where workers can join any organization of their choosing.

Defining living wage is very subjective. Collective bargaining with a worker organization is a good way to get started towards a living wage.


Fairtrade tries to improve wages, as official minimum wages are not enough in the Dominican Republic, but both wages are not currently fair.

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