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Many cocoa farm workers aren’t reaping the benefits of Fairtrade certification

In Côte d’Ivoire, employees at Fairtrade-certified cocoa cooperatives have higher salaries and better working conditions than those at non-certified organizations. Farm laborers, on the other hand, don’t fare as well.

ByKatherine J. WuNOVA NextNOVA Next

Fairtrade standards may not improve wages and working conditions at all steps along the cocoa supply chain. Image Credit: Alain Intraina, iStock

Long before it hits supermarket shelves, cocoa passes through dozens, if not hundreds, of hands—many of which belong to the laborers that harvest and hack the beans from their large, leathery pods.

For years, members of the cocoa industry in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast)—the world’s leading producer of this product—have been partnering with Fairtrade International, a nonprofit organization focused on enacting sustainable economic, environmental, and social standards on trade products in developing countries. However, while Fairtrade certification boosts income and reduces poverty among the employees of the country’s large cocoa cooperatives, the same doesn’t hold true for workers on the farms who, quite literally, bring these organizations’ products to fruition.

The findings, reported in an economic analysis published today in the journal Nature Sustainability, reaffirm the existence of longstanding disparities in the cocoa pipeline.

“This paper is a very welcome addition...and a really nice piece of work,” says Mark Lundy, the Sustainable Food Systems Theme Lead at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), who was not involved in the study. “One of the major gaps in any study looking at the impacts of Fairtrade is that they typically focus only on farmers, and ignore other key players...but this really shines a light on some of the limitations of [sustainability] certification as a way to drive broader social change.”

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It’s long been known that many members of the cocoa supply chain, including small-scale farmers and the laborers they employ, live in extreme poverty. In Côte d’Ivoire, which produces 40 percent of the world’s cocoa crop, millions of these workers struggle to make ends meet. Even the salaries of the farmers who may hire laborers average only around $0.78 per day—a mere 31 percent of what’s considered a living income in the region.

Ostensibly, the implementation of Fairtrade standards should combat these issues. But the infrastructure of Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa market is complex, and previous studies have suggested that regulations enforced at the highest levels of Fairtrade certification don’t always trickle down.

In Côte d’Ivoire, about half the cocoa farms operate as members of large cooperatives, which consolidate, store, and prepare the beans for local processing facilities or buyers abroad. Both cooperatives and their member farms hire their own employees, the former performing duties mostly related to management, logistics, and day-to-day company operations. Farm workers, however, are employed by individual farmers, and, unlike their supervisors, typically aren’t considered cooperative members.

While several studies have assessed the impacts of Fairtrade certification on farmers, there’s been a bit of a “blind spot” when it comes to the welfare of the rural workers they hire, says study author Eva-Marie Meemken, an agricultural economist at Cornell University. Part of the problem, she says, is access: Many farm workers come from other countries, leading to language barriers, and a good number of them work on a temporary basis in remote, inaccessible regions.

It’s exactly this oft-dismissed population, Meemken says, that might be most vulnerable to marginalization.


Workers in Côte d'Ivoire extract and wash cocoa beans in order to dry them. Image Credit: BOULENGER Xavier, Shutterstock

That’s where the new study comes in. To see how Fairtrade regulations affected people at multiple steps along the cocoa pipeline, Meemken and her colleagues interviewed more than 1,000 employees associated with 50 cocoa cooperatives in southeast Côte d’Ivoire, half of which were Fairtrade certified. In total, the study’s participants involved leaders from 50 cooperatives and 250 of their employees, as well as 500 cocoa farmers and 250 of their hired workers.

At the cooperative level, Fairtrade certification made a big difference. With annual salaries of around $1780, certified cooperative employees made more than double the annual income of workers in non-certified organizations. And while more than half of the non-certified cooperative workers surveyed lived below the national poverty line, the same was true for less than a third of certified cooperative employees—the only group surveyed who were more likely than not to have a written contract with their employer.

But further down the line, these economic benefits disappeared. Rural workers, who couldn’t claim cooperative membership, had roughly equivalent salaries—often below the poverty line—regardless of whether their employers were Fairtrade certified.

It’s important to note that because Fairtrade works in so many products on a global scale, the specific results from this paper won’t necessarily hold true for other goods or locations, or even across large periods of time within Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa market itself, says Elizabeth Bennett, a political economist and fair trade expert at Lewis & Clark College who was not involved in the study.

However, these results aren’t all that surprising, and mirror what’s been suggested by other studies of sustainability certifications, says Simanti Banerjee, an agricultural and behavioral economist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln who was not involved in the study.

Addressing income disparities within the Fairtrade supply chain is no simple matter. With such a decentralized cocoa network, it’s easy for small, remote farms in distant locales to fall through the cracks—even when their umbrella cooperatives meet certification standards, Meemken says. Regular check-ins take time and money—and even the best resourced cooperatives have trouble monitoring all their members when they’re this spread out. What’s more, she says, Fairtrade regulations haven’t traditionally included language that specifically address the operations of small-scale farms, which then have less incentive to mirror the standards and practices maintained by the cooperatives they sell to. (Of note, Fairtrade has publicly stated its intention to address labor issues in the small farm sector.)

“Standards need to be more clear about whether and how profits are shared, and that these standards should be better enforced,” Bennett says. “That hasn’t happened yet, and that’s overdue.”

One possible intervention, Banerjee says, could involve a system in which groups of farmers monitor each other to ensure that certain labor standards, including income and working conditions, are upheld. These small networks could also empower farmers—a tier of the cocoa supply chain that’s also been traditionally marginalized—to hold each other accountable, offering incentives for good behavior and charging fines for poor conduct.

Technological innovations such as mobile apps could even start to play a role in gathering and visualizing these types of sustainability data and more—a tactic that could make monitoring easier to implement, Lundy says. “This an area that’s ripe for innovation,” he says. “If you layer that kind of technology over the existing infrastructure, you can move forward quite quickly.”

Such changes would come at a cost, Lundy says. But leveling the playing field would yield more stable trading relationships, which could then have ripple effects on other aspects of sustainability, he adds, including good agricultural practices, or standards that take into account climate change mitigation.

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A farm worker family in Côte d’Ivoire. Image Credit: Jorge Sellare, University of Goettingen

Working within the existing Fairtrade system, however, may only go so far, says Lindsay Naylor, a geographer and food justice expert at the University of Delaware who was not involved in the study. “The people who are currently benefiting the most from Fairtrade certification are the consumers…[in part because] producers, who come from a variety of backgrounds, have no voice in creating the standards,” she says. Creating a more socially responsible system of trade, she adds, will require a larger-scale overhaul in which Fairtrade “invites more people to the table in a way that’s inclusive, and in a way where the table isn’t already set.”

That said, the takeaway from studies like these isn’t to demonize Fairtrade, which, among sustainability certifications, “comes out as being the most rigorous and having the highest standards for people,” Bennett says. But “the fact that the organization that sets this high watermark has a shortcoming...alerts me to how problematic other standards are very likely to be.”

As things stand in Côte d’Ivoire, the road ahead is likely to be long. Less than 10 percent of the country’s cocoa-growing land is under Fairtrade certification, and much of the market remains lacking on the sustainability front. The global growth of the cocoa market has led to rampant deforestation in Côte d’Ivoire, which, if unimpeded, could strip the country entirely of its forest cover within the next 15 years. What’s more, forced and child labor remain prominent issues: More than 2 million children work the cocoa fields of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana alone.

Addressing and achieving sustainability will require a multi-pronged approach, Bennett says. “Anything that is labeled sustainable cannot be only about the environment,” she explains. “It also has to be about people.”

“Getting people to change their behavior is a last-mile problem,” Banerjee adds. “You can cover 90 percent of the distance by having all the technologies and ideas in place, but that’s useless if no one adopts them. That’s where economics becomes essential to the study of sustainability.”

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