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A British study found that workers who produce Fairtrade-certified coffee, tea and flowers are often underpaid.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Coffee drinkers who choose brands carrying the Fairtrade logo are not helping the poor and the "ethical trading" claims made by fair-trade organizations are hollow, according to an in-depth report into the employment practices on coffee, tea and flower plantations in East Africa.

Research published by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University reveals that workers at Fairtrade certified farms are paid less and suffer inferior working conditions compared with those working for non-Fairtrade farms.

The criticism emerges after a four-year research project conducted by development economists at SOAS. Funded by Britain's Department for International Development, the researchers investigated labour markets for export crops in Ethiopia and Uganda. The micro-study of life for the rural poor involved 1,000 days of field research and the data covered 1,700 respondents including focus groups and life histories.

The latter expose the often appalling conditions suffered by workers picking the coffee beans and carnations that end up on supermarket shelves in Europe, the U.S. and Canada. The report titled Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda is at times a grim chronicle of exposure to harmful pesticides, workers forced to pay bribes to secure employment as well as violence and sexual abuse.

The report's conclusion will come as a shock to consumers in rich countries who pick brands carrying the Fairtrade logo, supposedly supporting the earnings of family farms and small-holders by paying of a "Fairtrade premium," helping them compete in a world dominated by large plantations.

In Ethiopia, the survey found that 30 per cent of Fairtrade workers earned less than 60 per cent of the median wage, compared with fewer than 5 per cent of non-Fairtrade workers. The researchers found that the best-paid workers were producing non-Fairtrade commodities.

Furthermore, the study found a lack of access to medical care for Fairtrade labourers in Ethiopia and Uganda.

"Workers in Fairtrade certified flower production [in Ethiopia] suffer harsher working conditions," the report says. "They are more likely to be exposed to harmful pesticides, to suffer physical and/or sexual abuse, and to experience payment delays. They are much less likely to benefit from sick leave, paid holidays and regular health and safety training."

The researchers say the public has been misled.

"The British public has been led to believe that by paying extra for Fairtrade certified coffee, tea and flowers they will 'make a difference' to the lives of poor Africans," said Christopher Cramer, professor of the political economy of development at SOAS. "Careful fieldwork and analysis in this four-year project leads to the conclusion that in our research sites, Fairtrade has not been an effective mechanism for improving the lives of wage workers, the poorest rural people."

The Fairtrade Foundation welcomed the report but said there were significant flaws in the study and rejected the conclusion that Fairtrade failed to improve the lives of the poor.

"We know that Fairtrade makes a difference to the lives of 1.4 million farmers and workers, and many other studies have backed this up," said Michael Gidney, CEO of the foundation.

The SOAS researchers are urging Fairtrade organizations to improve their audit procedures and establish minimum-wage standards that are at least as good as or better than non-certified wages.

The report also calls for labels that spell out whether seasonal workers are benefiting from the Fairtrade "social premium" and whether the product is making a difference to low-wage workers.

Researchers emphasized the importance of scale in wage rates and employment practices.

Big plantations tend to pay more and they can afford to provide better facilities, such as medical care and schooling for children. In addition, union activity is more likely on a large plantation than a family smallholding and the big farms are more visible, more easily regulated and noticed by union organizers.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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