Thursday, January 22, 2009

Is Fair Trade Really Fair?

Fair Trade coffee is a great example of the moral and ethical crisis we as citizens and consumers face on a daily basis. Let's fly to the Nic for a moment.

Marlon is the leader of his remote jungle community in Nicaragua. A gentle-hearted 35 year old who has two children of his own and cares for another teen who lost her parents in recent conflicts.

He has organized the coffee farmers in several of the surrounding areas in a cooperative so that they may share knowledge, shipping costs, and the price of purchasing Fair Trade certification. The great thing about Fair Trade certification is that it allows for this small cooperative to make a reasonable wage for their produce which they would be unable to without both the organic and fair trade stamps on their coffee which sells for a premium in the US.

The idea is that this certification allows for the protection of workers' collective rights and to sooth consumers' anxieties for a fixed cost.

Now the pickle here is that this is a certification that protects the rights of the collective workers rather than the individual farmers and is being dictated by consumers rather than big government.

"I don't know if we're going to be able to comply with the regulations this year," explains Marlon.

"You see, our kids have school only twice a week because it is so far away. The rest of the time they work picking coffee."

"This year, they are demanding that no child under the age of 16 works in the fields. There are 16 year old here with wives and homes already. How are they suppose to manage? Our children help pick the coffee during harvest. We cannot afford to hire workers like the large plantation. How are we suppose to manage?"

Child labor is a human rights violation, we can all agree on that. The idea with this regulation is to protect the collective rights of children, but it comes at the expense of individuals like Marlon and the members of his communities. Continuing on this path, Fair Trade coffee will drive his community in a helpless situation where they will have to work on someone else's farm to survive.

Is Fair Trade better than not? Probably. But as long as it is a system dictated by Western consumers presupposing other people's plights and transposing Western standards of development without the support to protect the individuals, that coffee should taste just as bitter as any other mass-produced gruel.

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