The vital role of trade unions

The human right to Freedom of Association isn’t just important on its own. It’s also critical for workers to join voices in trade unions and collectively negotiate about wages and other rights.

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, many orders have been cancelled, transport annulled and workplaces shut down with little or no advance notice.

Trade unions have shown their value, raising awareness and drawing attention to workers’ unpaid wages. Unions have also been on the front line, fighting for and providing personal protective equipment (PPE), trainings and even food.

Still some companies see trade unions as a costly threat. At Fairtrade, trade unions have both decision making and advisory power, and continuously help improve Fairtrade’s interventions on workers’ rights.

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Trade unions have long been represented on the Boards of several National Fairtrade Organisations in individual countries.

In 2010, Fairtrade established the Workers’ Rights Advisory Committee. Made up of trade unionists and advocates, it weighs in on strategies, standards and programmes.

Further, a seat has been designated for a workers’ representative on the Fairtrade’s Standards Committee, the eight-member body that debates and approves all Fairtrade standards.

“Trade unions are the legitimate voice of workers in workplaces across the world where Fairtrade products are produced,” says Wilbert Flinterman, Fairtrade’s Senior Advisor for Workers’ Rights and Trade Union Relations.

“We actively engage them for guidance on how to prioritize different labour issues and best reach our mission to improve workers’ lives,” he adds

Standards and beyond

Fairtrade seeks to advance workers’ rights and Freedom of Association through a variety of ways. Fairtrade Standards have several related requirements.

For instance, the standard requires plantations to sign a Right to Unionise Guarantee and display it in local languages in the workplace. A trade union or an independent, democratically elected workers’ organisation must exist and management must meet with its representatives at least once every three months. Where a collective bargaining agreement exists, plantations must adhere to it.

Plantations must also allow any union that operates in the sector or region to meet with workers on company premises – even where some workers already belong to a different union. This seeks to address the woe of “yellow” unions – company-controlled unions that provide no meaningful representation to workers.

Beyond certification, Fairtrade has been running multiple projects that offer workers’ rights training, promote social dialogue and collective bargaining at workplaces and at the sector level, and that help trade unions and employers to resolve disputes in a collaborative fashion.


We do not want workers to be dependent on certification contracts between their employer and private standard setters.

Supporting Collective Bargaining

Trade unions negotiate and oversee the implementation of collective bargaining agreements at the sectoral and workplace level so that workers receive their negotiated entitlements – a role at the heart of Fairtrade’s work on Living Wages.

“We do not want workers to be dependent on certification contracts between their employer and private standard setters,” Flinterman says. “Living Wages should be negotiated and embedded in such collective bargaining agreements.”

Yet it’s clear that much work remains. While Fairtrade can’t force workers to join trade unions, it’s important to encourage unionization: Unlike formal unions, worker committees usually can’t make collective bargaining agreements.

Further, while smallholder farms are, by definition, predominantly reliant on family labour, collectively they employ huge numbers of seasonal and permanent workers. Often, both these farmers’ and their workers’ earnings are very low. Fairtrade works hard to find effective ways to strengthen workers’ rights in such informal settings.

Poverty is endemic in agriculture

Hundreds of millions of people around the world work hard but can’t make ends meet. Most of them are in rural areas. About 65 percent of poor working adults and 80 percent of the world’s poor are involved in agriculture, according to the World Bank.

This means that just about any company that sources agricultural materials is linked to breaches of farmers and workers right to living income/wage and decent standard of living.

Companies need to treat the right to a living income/wage as a salient human rights issue and take actions to address it.

Adequate mitigation and remediation are a long way off for most working poor – which underscores the urgency for businesses to implement living income strategies as part of their human rights due diligence work.

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