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How “fair trade” labels help corporations hide exploitation in Mexico

  • Published on
    January 17, 2024
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  • Category:
    Forced Labor, Worker Empowerment
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In the idyllic aisles of U.S. supermarkets, labels like “responsibly grown,” “farmworker-assured,” and “fair-trade certified” adorn fruits and vegetables, masking the harsh realities faced by Mexican workers who harvest them including wage theft, sexual harassment, retaliation, and even forced labor.

Weak standards and poor enforcement

Fair Trade USA and the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI)  claim to establish private labor standards through a collaborative process involving brands, growers, nonprofits, and, in the case of EFI, U.S. farmworker unions.

However, Corporate Accountability Lab interviewed 200 workers and found that these certifications are tools of management repression, creating joint worker-management committees that are ineffective in empowering workers.

Anna Canning and James Daria report,

Both Fair Trade USA and EFI certifications assess compliance through third-party social auditors who visit plantation sites and interview workers.

The audit is set up to deliver good results, with focus-group-style interviews in front of management. “Yes, they ask us a lot of questions,” Lucinda said, “but we can’t say the truth there, because the coordinator is there. The human resources person is there.

“Before they [the auditors] come, they tell us ‘We have to go over this, and when they come we have to tell them yes.’ In other words, they instruct us to lie, and really we aren’t really complying.”

“To me, Fair Trade means unfair trade.”

One group of workers on a plantation certified by EFI and Fair Trade USA told Jacobin that they were forced to work for extended periods of time without days off, unable to leave as their identity documents and wages were withheld. One man noted, “I felt like a slave.”

Their salvation? Not auditors but a farmworker union – the kind that is undermined by certification schemes that cut out meaningful organizing by workers for workers.

The illusion of ethical consumption

Most disturbingly, the report reveals that certification standards are lower than prevailing national labor laws – so weak, they can be cleared easily and yet, even then, workers are rarely trained to recognize or understand what these standards actually are. This is how such schemes create an environment in which workers can be mistreated while corporations still earn a “fair trade” stamp of approval which consumers in the U.S. (and elsewhere) are encouraged to buy in support of workers’ rights.

The exploitation faced by Mexican farmworkers demands not just consumer awareness but a radical shift in corporate responsibility to ensure fair and equitable conditions.

Relying solely on certifications is not a new problem. Whether it’s cocoa or the auto industry, auditing is a poor substitute for worker empowerment and protection from predatory corporations.

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Shalina Stilley
Shalina Stilley
4 months ago

Damned if we buy fair trade, damned if we don’t. Is that it?

Claire
Claire
4 months ago

So are you saying we shouldn’t buy Fair Trade products as it’s, at best, meaningless and, at worst, encouraging exploitation of workers?

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