Approach With Caution: An Assessment of Fair Trade USA’s Domestic Labeling Initiative

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Authors: Dana Geffner and Kerstin Lindgren| Published: May 5, 2017 

Fair Trade USA’s (FTUSA) label is showing up on fruits and vegetables in produce departments around the country. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily a step forward for farmworkers.

In Fair World Project’s recent report Justice in the Fields we evaluate seven different labels claiming to benefit farmworkers either domestically or internationally. We conclude that Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) is a program to “Approach With Caution”. We recommend four other labels ahead of FTUSA.

As we explain in our report, fair trade is a movement and a market descriptor that emerged out of the need for marginalized small-scale producers in the global south to organize and gain access to global markets. The application of the term “fair trade” to an ever-expanding scope of geographies and production settings is confusing and misleading to consumers who rely on it to identify products made by small-scale producers. This expansion of scope also threatens small-scale producers who suddenly find themselves competing against large-scale producers using the same term. These are real concerns that also led us to rate Fair Trade USA poorly as a farmworker justice label. This “Approach With Caution” warning applies equally to FTUSA’s more established work on medium- to large-scale farms in the Global South.

The concerns we outline here also mirror similar concerns with FTUSA’s separate standards for fisheries and apparel, both of which are also now open to domestic production and labeling.

Why Approach Fair Trade USA with Caution?

FTUSA may be the program with the most marketing resources, but they are not the program closest to the ground. That means there has been a lot of buzz about FTUSA’s entry into the domestic market and the casual observer may be led to believe they are the only alternative to the conventional system of low wages and poor conditions on the field. Not only is that not true, the net benefit of this labeling program may well be negative as it draws attention away from stronger, farmer-led programs.

The reality is that three of the four programs we rated higher than FTUSA are U.S. programs that have been working in this context for longer than FTUSA. And although union membership in general is down, independent, grassroots unions like Familias Unidas por la Justicia are breathing new life into this tried and true organizing model.

While it is certainly true that there is room for multiple approaches to provide a remedy and alternative to exploitation on the field, our analysis revealed that FTUSA’s approach does not add any strong or unique features to the landscape. It is, at best, a corporate social responsibility program.

Farmworker-Led: Does It Really Matter?

We often say that all stakeholders, especially intended beneficiaries, of any program need to be at the table for its development, enforcement, and monitoring. This may sound like an academic ideal, or even just a courtesy to include those who are the target beneficiaries. But having multiple representatives of beneficiaries and a balanced stakeholder development is vital. If you look at the Fair Trade USA standards, you may see that they include common sense elements. Workers must wear protective equipment, workers must be paid directly for all work they perform on a regular schedule, workers must have rest breaks and work overtime only if willing. These are all good basic requirements and, unfortunately, not guaranteed on conventional farms.

In contrast, Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), Fair Food Program (FFP), and Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) were all created with farmworker organizations as founding members and, although they take different approaches and have room for improvement, have one or more elements that positions them as leaders in the field—and shows the importance of farmworker perspective in the development of standards.

AJP requires phasing out piece rate, a form of payment associated with wage theft, increased physical risk, and discrimination, requires living wages or transparent pay negotiations between farmworkers and managers, and requires toxin reduction and least toxic alternatives to pesticides and other chemicals to be used in all cases.

FFP requires all farmworkers to be hired directly by the farm, increasing accountability. FFP has also developed a model complaints resolution program and a legally binding mechanism to transfer money directly from the most profitable end of the supply chain to the most economically disadvantaged.

EFI has developed comprehensive training programs for both auditors and on-farm leadership committees.

While FTUSA covers the bare bones minimum requirements for working conditions, they fail to cover new ground or take the lead in fair pay, democratic organization, or other key areas of worker empowerment. Instead, in an industry known for its exploitation of workers, FTUSA’s standards stick to small improvements that could best be described as adequate.

Adequate Standards, Inadequate Enforcement

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the farmworker organization that developed the FFP, makes the strong case that standards without enforcement amount to empty promises. FFP’s enforcement elements include worker-to-worker training, a 24-hour complaints hotline that has become a hallmark of the program, and legally binding contracts with market consequences for non-compliance.

AJP’s monitoring and enforcement incorporates independent worker organizations that help conduct worker interviews and remain available in between audits to hear worker complaints.

Annual audits are very important in understanding how a certified entity operates. But they are not sufficient to understand the full picture of what is happening, especially when announced ahead of time. If a farm is employing child labor, for example, they may ask the children to stay home the day of the audit. Protective equipment may be dusted off and handed out for the audit period even if workers don’t have consistent access throughout the year. A group of workers may be consistently assigned fields were conditions are least favorable (lower yielding plants, for example, on a farm where workers are paid by what they are able to pick) and that might not be clear to an auditor based on a day or week of observation.

Workers must be able to describe in their own words through interviews and complaint resolution channels what is really going on and how well their needs are being met. They also must be empowered to improve their conditions, both by reporting violations of established standards, and in proposing innovations. FTUSA relies too heavily on annual audits conducted by professional auditors without farmworker organization participation. Though farms do have some worker committees, the mandated committees have a narrow scope: administration of a premium or making recommendations for health and safety improvements. These committees are not guaranteed to have the authority or power to investigate the full range of worker grievances or to negotiate with management beyond their narrow scope.

There is too much margin for complaints to be buried or missed in this system and not enough opportunities for workers to be empowered to change their own pay and conditions. With inadequate enforcement, barely adequate standards quickly become meaningless.

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