The Fair Trade Movement for Informal Workers

Elaine Jones Mon May 25, 2015
Occupational Groups: Home-Based Workers
Topics: Livelihoods

A Q&A with Elaine Jones during World Fair Trade Week

Elaine Jones, Director of WIEGO’s Global Trade Programme, joins us this week from  the World Fair Trade Week being held in Milan, Italy. The weeklong event features the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) Conference, a Fair Trade International Symposium and an International Fair Trade Expo. Elaine has coordinated a multi-country series of case studies on women’s economic empowerment with a focus on women producers engaged with global fair trade markets. She tells us more about gender issues in the Fair Trade movement, the role of informal workers and what she hopes will come out of the weeklong series of events.

What is Fair Trade?

Fair Trade is a concept that challenges the historical injustices inherent in the global trading system and is built on a belief that trade can be more socially just.

Fair Trade has become an international social movement which consists of northern fair trade organizations (FTOs) that purchase and sell Fair Trade products; the Southern-based marketing and producer organizations from whom they buy; and consumers who support Fair Trade through the purchase of those goods and through advocacy and campaigning. The World Fair Trade Organisation is one of the international networks that make up the movement, and its members are drawn from these different constituencies.

Informal Workers and AdvocatesCould you tell us about how Fair Trade connects to and benefits informal workers?

Fair Trade actively targets “poor producers” and offers an alternative means of livelihood for thousands of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Most “producers” are, in fact, informal workers, many of whom are women. Many producers of crafts are either self-employed or dependent industrial outworkers, but tend not to be recognized as such because they mainly work from their own homes.

In spite of this, Fair Trade offers a system of standards that captures behavioural norms between the partners in the trading relationship. These norms are derived from a moral code of fairness based on interpretations of trade justice, and labour rights derived from international labour standards. These range from norms of transparency and accountability to the payment of a fair price/living wage (based on costs of production plus a margin/compliance with a minimum wage plus discretionary expenditure to cover items such as clothing and school fees). The requirement for Fair Trade producers and marketing organizations to comply with these standards is a key driver in improving the income and working conditions for informal workers in the Fair Trade system.

While we have to acknowledge that these informal workers benefit from the incomes they receive from being part of the Fair Trade system, we also argue for the need for Fair Trade Organizations to have a more nuanced understanding of the employment status of the workers who produce and process the goods that are marketed as Fair Trade or Fairtrade. This will allow FTOs to better understand the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers in the Fair Trade system.

Informal Workers in Fair TradeHow can Fair Trade organizations better support informal workers, especially women?

There is an ongoing need for a paradigm shift away from a disempowering and pervasive philanthropic approach to serving producers to recognizing them as informal workers with rights who are actively organizing as agents of change and advocates of trade justice.

It is important that Fair Trade Networks and their members begin to document information about the “producers” who make and grow Fair Trade goods. We need to better understand the different categories of workers in the Fair Trade system and assist FTOs in the development of their capacity-building support to producers in compliance with WFTO Fair Trade Principle 8. The existing conceptualization of “producers” and workers masks a whole host of different categories of employment relations, which means that many informal workers remain unaware of their rights and many employers unaware of their responsibilities towards their employees.

New research commissioned by Fairtrade International found that producer organization rules, structures and practices often create bias in favour of men, because the membership of producer organizations often reflects local norms in land ownership or in the ownership and right to sell crops. Where men are more likely to own land or to sell crops to the cooperative, they are more likely to hold the cooperative membership on behalf of their household. Since membership is biased in favour of men, leadership tends to be similarly biased, which in turn poses challenges for promoting women’s needs and interests within cooperatives.

Fair Trade Organizations need to develop and implement policies within the Fair Trade systems that ensure that women are able to participate in formal membership and leadership positions of cooperatives and groups.

Informal Worker - VendorWhat are some innovative ways WIEGO has been advancing the fair trade movement for informal workers?

WIEGO has been engaged with Fair Trade networks since 2008. Under its latest programme, which has been running since 2013, the focus has been on developing leadership and business skills for informal women workers in Fair Trade networks in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda through a training of trainers approach. Although training of trainers is not a new approach per se, it is the first time that the country networks in Kenya and Uganda have applied such an approach and extended their reach right down the value chain to the primary producers.

The methodology upon which the training and capacity-building programme have been developed is inspired by WIEGO’S Theory of Change and by participatory methodologies such as the innovative approach to gender learning developed by Oxfam NOVIB. Rather than written words, drawings and diagrams are used to explore the different roles that men and women take on and to highlight the multiple unpaid tasks women assume in the home and those tasks they do to earn money. Everyone can participate fully, enjoy the exercise and have fun. Reflection on what the drawings describe leads to clarity on what needs to change to empower women and to lead to greater gender equality.

In partnership with WIEGO, networks and cooperatives have coordinated the programme at the country-level. Outreach to the participating producer organizations is achieved through community-based facilitators who are trained as trainers. Through this cascading approach, the programme has already reached an estimated 6,000-7,000 women.

You’ve focused your talk this week on gender issues, pushing the WFTO to go beyond Principle 6. Tell us more about your position and why it's important.

It is critical to the development of the Fair Trade movement that much more attention is paid to equipping women with the skills necessary to lead their organizations, market their products, influence the wider policy environment that shapes their lives and livelihoods and stand up for their equal rights for pay and benefits. More needs to be done to encourage the membership of WFTO to develop clear policies and plans to ensure that women benefit equally from Fair Trade relationships, that they are empowered to lead their own organizations and that they are trained in business skills

WFTO has reformed its Principle 6 to call on its regional networks to adopt policies in order to address the question of the recognition of the employment relationship, particularly in relation to women informal workers. While this is a positive step forward, implementation remains weak. Under WFTO’s Fair Trade Guarantee System, members are required to report their performance against all 10 Fair Trade principles. We would like to see the reporting framework strengthen the compliance criteria to drive improvements in performance against principle 6.

FishermanWhat do you hope will come out of the meetings this week?

Through the extensive monitoring that goes on through the Fairtrade International certification system and, more recently, the WFTO Fair Trade Guarantee System, there is an opportunity to gather more precise data on the numbers and types of informal workers within the Fair Trade networks. By shining a light on the thousands of informal workers who work within these networks, it is hoped that the benefits of Fair Trade can be extended to all workers in the value chain, that their employment status can be recognized and that their working conditions can be improved in accordance with international labour standards.