The Fair Trade certification movement asks consumers of coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate to pay a little more for the product to help the people who grow and pick the coffee to a better life.

But a new report by an economist from the University of London finds the Fair Trade certification movement may not be living up to its billing.

Christopher Cramer co-author of Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda studied 12 sites in Ethiopia in Uganda, comparing the wages of hired labour in areas with large plantations, areas with small farmers dominated by a fair trade organization and areas without such an organization.

“What we found was that the wages on average in the area dominated by a fair trade organization weren’t just the same, they were worse, they were lower than the other sites,” Cramer told CBC's The Current.

He also discovered use of child labour and very uneven working conditions, though stories about conditions varied widely from one area to the next.

“Modern toilets...in one tea plantation were for the exclusive use of senior management,” Cramer said.

Working conditions uneven

“We found people who were or had been workers at a certified tea-producing organization in Uganda who weren’t allowed to use the health clinic or they’d have to pay quite a lot for it, so they’d have to go a much further distance to get a government clinic that was free,” he added.

He also found a community where fair trade money had been used to build houses for teachers.

The study raised the question of who has benefited from Fair Trade certifications, Cramer said.

“The sales through the cooperative are dominated by a minority of rather large, so-called smallholders so if there is a little bit extra for the price, the people who dominate the sales are bound to benefit most,” he said.

Harriet Lamb, CEO of Fairtrade International, one of the largest fair trade certification groups, said she welcomed the study as there is little or no research on casual labourers in Uganda and Ethiopia.

But she urged consumers not to give up the Fair Trade certification.

A 'work in progress'

“I think it is worrying, that’s why I would urge everybody to understand fair trade is about step-by-step tackling the really deep-rooted poverty in global trade,” she said.

Lamb said she sees fair trade as a “work in progress.”

“What we see about this study and we welcome it, is the spotlight on the position of very poor workers – casual country workers, many of them women, many of them divorced or widowed, working on smallholder farms for very small amounts of time every year,” she said.

She said the findings should get governments, unions and everyone interested in fairness “thinking about how can we enable those very poor workers to get a better deal.”

Lamb pointed out that the economics of smallholder farmers has been improved as many of these farmers are extremely poor themselves. 

She told of meeting a coffee farmer in Ethiopia who said the biggest benefit of fair trade was that he was able to build a lean-to for his cattle, so he and his family no longer had to share his one-room house with the cattle.

Lamb said Fairtrade International does ask large plantations to pay workers more than the minimum wage, but moving pay scales higher will take a further effort.

Cramer urged more effective monitoring by the organization and said there is a need for further research into labour markets in areas where chocolate, sugar, coffee and tea are grown.

“I really do hope the money that goes to fair trade really goes to fair trade,” said Doron Levy at Trees Organic coffee in Vancouver, who adopted Fair Trade coffee a few years ago when customers began to demand it.

“The philosophy is that you are good to the farmers who produce the good coffee that I like --  It was appealing to me and it was appealing also to many Canadians.”