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Work still to do on farm labour

Certification schemes are not yet effective at addressing consumers’ growing fears over exploitation of farmworkers, writes Kerstin Lindgren.

Consumers are increasingly concerned by the low pay and poor conditions on many farms. Farmworker justice certification schemes are therefore emerging to provide evidence that food is produced without exploitation. But are they any good?

For our recent report “Justice in the Fields”, we analysed both the potential role of voluntary certification for farmworker justice and the specifics of seven programmes. It’s important that well-intentioned consumers, brands and businesses understand which labels are meaningful, as well as the limits of voluntary certification programmes.

We found that the Rainforest Alliance – which has a strong environmental focus but claims to equally promote social and economic values – lacks meaningful mechanisms, such as democratically elected worker committees charged with investigating grievances, for enforcing standards. Standards themselves are also weaker than other programmes, notably in the area of wages where there is no requirement to pay above legal minimum wages or improve pay of farmworkers.

Given this lack of adequate enforcement across these relatively low standards, it’s not surprising that investigations repeatedly find violations of both standards and basic rights on Rainforest Alliance certified farms. A 2016 report by Oxfam Germany, called “Sweet Fruit, Bitter Truth”, found low pay, labour rights violations and insufficient protection against large volumes of toxic pesticides on fruit plantations in Costa Rica. The previous year, a BBC investigation found similar violations on tea plantations in India.

Fairtrade International has a strong focus on small-scale farmers, but has expanded its scope to certify large-scale plantations in certain crops. Although this expansion got off to a rocky and controversial start, the latest iteration of the programme, evaluated in our report, is quite strong, supporting democratic worker associations and living wages on farms.

Food Justice Certified and the Fair Food Program, both developed in the US, with flexibility to adapt to other geographies and contexts, have a more central worker welfare mission and strong enforcement, yet very different approaches to the marketplace. Food Justice Certified has stringent eligibility requirements, including an emphasis on sustainable and organic agriculture; it is an attractive option to farms and brands committed to sustainability. Piece rate, the controversial method of paying workers based on how much they are able to harvest, is associated with wage theft, discriminatory pay and contributing to overwork. It must be phased out on Food Justice Certified farms.

The Fair Food Program, meanwhile, works within the conventional food and agriculture system, partnering with fast-food chains, large supermarkets and large-scale monoculture farms, introducing better practices, eliminating the worst forms of exploitation from participating farms and incrementally increasing pay for farmworkers. Rather than eliminating piece rate, it is at the centre of the payment plan, with its “penny a pound” programme that requires the end buyer to pay a premium per pound of produce (up to three cents in most cases) that is paid directly to farmworkers. The Fair Food Program takes voluntary certification to the next level of enforcement. While it is voluntary to sign on to the programme, participants sign a legally binding agreement. Potentially reluctant large-scale growers and companies have been compelled to enter binding agreements resulting in documented improvements in rural communities.

In our accompanying fact sheet for consumers, we highlight the dangers of heat stress, pesticide exposure and low pay associated with agricultural work and recommend that consumers look for strong certifications as well as farmworker union labels. We also urge consumers to look for ways to support farmworker-led campaigns. This is an important component of justice because so many farmworkers do not work on certified farms and many key issues, such as fair immigration rules, are outside the scope of certification.

Our recommendations for businesses and retailers are similar. There are many legitimate approaches to certification labels, but if farmworkers are not involved directly at both implementation level on the farm and the programme development label, companies put themselves at great risk as we’ve seen repeatedly on Rainforest Alliance certified farms. Supporting policies for decent pay, pesticide protection and other sustainable farm practices also goes a lot further in eliminating the worst exploitation from all supply chains than investment in a limited amount of certified ingredients or products. Voluntary certification programmes can play a role in farmworker justice, but policy engagement by all stakeholders will continue to be important.”

Kerstin Lindgren is campaign director at the Fair World Project, an independent campaign launched by the Organic Consumers Association that seeks to protect the use of the term “fair trade” in the marketplace.