What is Equal Exchange’s response to the University of London/SOAS study on Fair Trade and labor in Ethiopia & Uganda?

We have read the SOAS study carefully and have found it to have significant methodological and analytical flaws, even while it is nevertheless commendable for reminding people of the struggles of migrant farm workers in East Africa. We know from our decades in this field that farm workers the world over, including hundreds of thousands of farm workers right here in the United States, are among the poorest of the poor. However, it’s unfortunate that the SOAS researchers have decided to use their study to attack Fair Trade and are accusing the Fair Trade system for failing to address the farm worker needs. 

Fair Trade as originally designed ― and as still practiced by Equal Exchange and dozens of other Fair Trade pioneers ―is a powerful tool to help support and meet the needs of a different, but also deserving group of people: millions of small-scale farmers who have come together in democratically managed farmer-owned cooperatives. These farmers are often only barely better off than the migrant & temporary workers who were the focus of the SOAS study. In fact, these small scale farmers themselves often seek work on larger farms if and when they cannot make an adequate living from their own farms.  Fair Trade has demonstrated that it does, indeed, work as planned in helping these farmers hold on to their farms, improve their livelihoods, and to gain more control over the economic futures.

The SOAS study also documented the failure of Fair Trade certified plantations to provide improved standards of living for their workers. While this part of the study also had methodological flaws we agree in principle that Fair Trade is the wrong tool to deliver better livelihoods for plantation workers. Other recent research, such as the new book The Darjeeling Distinction, supports this conclusion.  

To help elaborate some of these issues, and to explain how Fair Trade is a powerful tool to support economic empowerment among small-farmer co-ops, Equal Exchange and 40 other international Fair Trade organizations released this joint statement on June 17th.  We encourage you to read it and to contact us if you still have questions.