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Fairtrade and the South African Challenge

6 October 2010

Mandy Moussouris, Fairtrade Project Manager, Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG)

Fairtrade is a market-based system which is meant to create better trading conditions and promote sustainability for producers in developing countries. It advocates for paying producers higher prices, as well as for higher social and environmental standards and the rights of farm workers (e.g. banning child and slave labour, guaranteeing safe workplaces and the right to unionise).

In South Africa, Fairtrade production and marketing began in 2000. However, due to the large industrial nature of most South African farms (as a result of apartheid and post-apartheid agricultural policy), there are few small farmers, and most (100) Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO) certified farms are Hired Labour Producer Organisations (HLOs), while only three Small Farmer Organisations are FLO certified.

Rooibos tea small farmers in Niewoudville

Small farmers in South Africa face huge challenges — competing with HLOs and operating in an industrial economy not designed to support them. As demand from developed countries for Fairtrade products grows, producers face more pressure to produce large, guaranteed quantities of products. Since only HLOs can give those guarantees, more HLOs than small farmers are being FLO certified, placing even more pressure on small farmers. While Fairtrade has helped small farmers access markets and build their organisations, if the Fairtrade systems does not understand, acknowledge and accommodate the challenges facing small farmers there is a very real danger that this progress could be undermined.

Apart from the challenges faced by small farmers, farm workers on HLO farms, also face challenges. While they benefit from Fairtrade premium money for community development and from yearly audits to ensure HLOs comply with labour laws and standards, compliance is not consistent. On some Fairtrade farms, workers’ rights are protected and workers own shares in the farm (to comply with Black Economic Empowerment laws), but on other farms old apartheid attitudes still linger. On such farms, although farm workers agree that things have changed since the farm received FLO certification, they do not decide what changes, were denied access to Fairtrade sales figures and ‘were told that trade unions are not allowed to set foot on our farm.’ It is therefore clear that annual FLO audits are not picking up problems at Fairtrade farms and that small farmers and farm workers do not feel empowered to address there concerns to FLO. Therefore, small farmers and farm workers felt the need to find ways to ensure that the Fairtrade system really works for them.

Limpopo Farm Workers

In 2005 with the help of the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG), a group of small farmers and farm workers set up the Association for Fairness in Trade (AFIT) to create space for small farmers and farmworkers to engage on Fairtrade issues, through capacity building, information sharing and platforms for debates and discussions. AFIT is a membership-driven collective, which provides space where members ‘are not afraid to talk because we are with our fellow workers’. The collective empowers workers and small farmers through participatory learning and sharing problems and experiences. It has also successfully lobbied FLO around standard and pricing issues which impact on small farmers.

Fairtrade has assisted greatly in steering agricultural in a developmental direction, despite its lack of a bottom–up approach. However, in South Africa, with its stark legacy of oppression more is needed. However, Fairtrade beneficiaries need to lead the process of bottom up development, to direct the Fairtrade movement in terms of their reality and their needs. Therefore it is necessary for the agricultural system in general and FLO in particular to hear from initiatives like AFIT and allow this to direct their course.

If the FLO does not improve its capacity to listen to the beneficiaries, it will fail in its attempts to make Fairtrade really fair, exploitation of farm workers on Fairtrade farms will not be addressed, small farmers will fail to benefit, and the label will become meaningless.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 7 October 2010 7:14 pm

    People employed on small farms know: Every little success requires effort and commitment – hard work! They certainly will be far-sighted enough not to rest before bringing about structures of communication that promote fairness and solidarity- for example: initiatives like the Association for Fairness in Trade (AFIT) that bring employees and employers together, enabling them to overcome the apartheid legacy and become part of a community of socially and ecologically responsible producers our young democracy can bank on!

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