In a food system where farmworkers struggle for safe and fair working conditions, healthcare, and access to education for their children, the concept of Fair Trade, of connecting consumers with producers, and standing up for what's right through purchasing decisions, has become incredibly powerful. Since 1988, Oakland, CA-based Fair Trade USA has been at the forefront of the Fair Trade movement, committed to providing consumers with quality products while assuring farmers get a fair price for their work. Fair Trade USA is one of the leading certifiers for Fair Trade products in the United States. Hannah Freeman, director of produce and floral at Fair Trade USA, has been with the organization for more than 12 years. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with her about Fair Trade, and how it relates to farmworkers.
Food Tank (FT): What inspires you about Fair Trade?
Hannah Freeman (HF): Fair Trade inspires me because it empowers farmers and workers to be their own agents of change. It gives them a voice in the workplace, and the ability to implement meaningful projects that benefit the entire community. I’m also inspired by the way a small everyday purchase—a banana or a cup of coffee—can have a major positive impact on the lives of farmers and workers worldwide. It’s not only a way to say “thanks” to the people who work so hard to grow our food, but it’s also a vote for the kind of world we want to live in. There’s tremendous power in that.
FT: Can you talk a little about the history of Fair Trade and how it relates to the realities farmworkers face?
HF: The concept of Fair Trade began over 60 years ago, when European traders began working with small rural communities in developing countries to help them get their product to market. Today, Fair Trade is a vibrant global movement connecting producers, businesses, and consumers around a more equitable approach to trade, while building strong, transparent supply chains that support all actors.
Historically, farmworkers have been among the lowest-paid and most vulnerable workforces. Unfortunately, we continue to see reports of poor treatment, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, poor housing, and, in some cases, child and forced labor. Fair Trade aims to address these critical challenges, while empowering farmworkers to make decisions together with management, and implement changes that benefit the entire workforce and families.
For farmworkers, Fair Trade serves not only to protect fundamental human rights, but also give workers a voice. Empowerment is the true Fair Trade difference.
FT: Do you think consumers in the United States are aware of the farmworker labor conditions in their own country?
HF: I think there is both a level of awareness, and a level of disconnect. When you go to the store to buy an apple, it’s easy to feel removed from the farmworker that picked it. There is a big opportunity for retailers to bridge this gap through Fair Trade. And not just by simply offering a product that supports farmworkers, but also by telling their stories in-store as well. Fair Trade helps bring the producer experience face-to-face with the shopper experience.
FT: Have consumers already helped make progress for farmworkers through purchasing decisions?
HF: Absolutely. For every Fair Trade sale, an additional Community Development Premium goes directly back to the farmworkers that grew and picked the product. This money is democratically voted on, and used to fund much-needed community projects. In 2013, Fair Trade produce volumes sold in the United States grew 37 percent over 2012, making it one of Fair Trade USA’s fastest growing product categories. This growth nearly doubled the amount of Fair Trade Community Development Premiums earned by produce farmers and workers, equating to an additional US$4.2 million to invest in areas like education, transportation, health care, and potable water.
At Wholesum Harvest, a Fair Trade grower of tomato, eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers, and more in Mexico, farmworkers voted to purchase a bus to help transport their children to and from school safely. Previously, children had to either walk miles along dusty, dangerous roads or pay the bus fare which cost families up to one-third their daily salary.At Divemex, another Mexican grower of bell peppers, farmworkers set up a scholarship fund for children in the community using Fair Trade premiums. All of these projects were made possible by the ever-growing support of retailers and consumers across the country.
FT: How does a business obtain Fair Trade certification?
HF: Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit organization, certifies individual farms and their products according to the Fair Trade standards. Once certified, that farm may sell those products to any buyer registered with Fair Trade USA. We then audit the chain of custody to ensure transparency and traceability from farm to shelf.
To earn certification, farms must meet a rigorous set of social, environmental, and economic standards, addressing the way products like coffee, bananas, tomatoes, cocoa, tea, sugar, clothing, and seafood are sourced, traded, and promoted. The standards cover areas like safe working conditions, elimination of forced and child labor, restriction of harmful chemicals, regulated work hours, and maternity leave.
FT: What does Fair Trade USA have planned for the future?
HF: Our plan for the future is to make Fair Trade produce the norm. Each year the program continues to grow, new groups are certified, and new Fair Trade products come to market. We’re so incredibly proud of the positive impact leading traders, retailers, and concerned consumers are having thanks to their everyday purchases.
But, there’s still so much work to be done. There are many farmworkers, not only in developing countries but here in the U.S. as well, that could also benefit from access to Fair Trade. Our goal is to find a solution that helps all farmworkers, wherever they may be, do their work with pride and dignity.