21 March, 2014

Fairtrade Hired Labour Standards: steps to meaningful progress

by Richard Anstead, Head of Product Management at the Fairtrade Foundation

New Fairtrade standards for hired labour, published in January, drive real change for workers across the globe. Richard Anstead, Head of Product Management at the Fairtrade Foundation, discusses the journey to unlocking the power of the many.

fairtrade standardsIt’s good to talk…

Since announcing our new Worker’s Rights Strategy in 2012 we have been doing a lot of talking. Nothing new there some might say…

Fairtrade staff have consulted with partners all over the world on how we can ensure new Hired Labour Standards offer greater support to workers, greater autonomy in decision making and important steps towards living wages, meeting with over 400 workers from 14 countries, 170 management representatives and partners working for traders, unions, NGOs, brands and retailers.

I have witnessed and led a number of these conversations. At the start of the process I was able to join workers from all over East Africa as they met in Addis Ababa to discuss the worker’s rights strategy: to exercise their rights as key stakeholders in Fairtrade; to voice their opinions; talk about their concerns and needs; and propose new ways forward. This workshop, late in 2012, was just one of the regional workshops attended by workers in Fairtrade farms that set out many of the challenges faced by workers, helping form the new standards for Fairtrade. Almost a year later, in summer 2013, I attended a workshop in Kenya where a draft of the new proposed standard was shared with both workers and managers. Over three days the finer details were examined and robustly debated – what worked? What did not? How did the standard make a positive impact for workers?

The new standard

But all the talking has been worth it and has led to a comprehensive review of Fairtrade’s Hired Labour Standards that were published on the 14th January. This new standard is a critical building block for Fairtrade as it strives to ‘unlock the power of the many’ and drive real change for workers. It offers works for the first time a ‘right to unionise guarantee’ , introduces a clear requirement for wages to progress towards a living wage, allows more flexibility in the use of the Fairtrade Premium and ensures the opinions and needs of migrant labour are more widely recognised.

I think it is also critical for business in the UK too. In 2011, research commissioned by the Fairtrade Foundation showed that 89% of the public agreed it was important for business to ensure they paid farmers and workers fairly when buying from poor countries. As businesses and consumers become increasingly aware of the many challenges that need to be addressed for products to be truly sustainable, then topics such as the right to unionise, empowerment in wage bargaining and the basic human right to earn a living wage are rising up everyone’s agenda. In late January this year a study by Oxfam revealed the Top 85 richest people own the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion – a startling statistic. 

Sadly, you can be sure that many of the 3.5 billion are either in or directly connected to the supply chains that provide so many of the products that we eat, drink or wear every day of the week.

hired labourMore to do

The current way global trade is conducted consistently fails the very poorest and the most marginalised. Global trade could and should be offering a way out for those who continue to be trapped in poverty, but is currently coming up short.

It is for this reason the new standard is only one important step on a much longer journey to strengthen the position of workers on Fairtrade farms. 

‘Our work is far from over. This new Standard provides the support framework, and now we have to work hard to make sure workers have the capacity and the freedom to negotiate fairer workplaces,’ says Wilbert Flinterman, Senior Advisor on Workers’ Rights and Trade Union Relations at Fairtrade International

‘We will continue building partnerships with global union federations and local trade unions to engage workers; at the same we will continue pushing for fairer prices, and a better distribution of value along the supply chain.’

I think this means we all need to keep talking! 

Fairtrade will keep talking to workers, employers, union and business. We will ask them to do more. Broaden and deepen their commitment to Fairtrade and to workers’ rights. We will ask them what Fairtrade needs to do to reach more of the world’s poorest and in a more impactful way.  

Fairtrade is a good first step towards a fairer world and the Fairtrade minimum prices go some way towards ensuring the costs of sustainable production are covered, however, we also recognise there is more for Fairtrade and others to do if we are going to ensure workers in the developing world can make meaningful progress towards a living wage. At a recent workshop run by the Ethical Trade Initiative, focusing on Living Wage, you could sense the importance all parties were putting on the need to make clear and substantial progress in this area. There is a clear need for all parties, including consumers to act together to ensure workers can move towards earning a living wage.

Fairtrade continues to work with Oxfam and the Ethical Tea Partnership in Malawi to support workers in the tea industry. The UK is the single largest market for Malawi Tea; it regularly appears in the blends we see on supermarket shelves, but there is clear evidence that workers struggle to earn enough to help them escape the poverty trap. 

With others, Fairtrade is helping support and strengthen the power of trade unions in Malawi and establish a clear living wage benchmark.  We hope through this work and as the project evolves we will start seeing wages increase and workers on all farms start to get a better deal.

Oxfam’s Ethical Trade Manager, Rachel Wilshaw, blogs about the Hired Labour Standard on the Oxfam blog here

Read more on the Hired Labour Standard from Ergon Associates here

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