Workers' rights

Workers on farms and in factories are among the most vulnerable people in global trade. See how Fairtrade is working for workers.

25862 Worker Packing Papayas Brazil 870
A worker packing papayas for export.
Image © Maurice Ressel

Without access to land or unable to make a living from it, agricultural workers often have few options for a sustainable livelihood. These workers often lack formal contracts, freedom of association, basic health and safety assurances, and adequate wages, among other challenges. Even employers with good intentions can find that they don’t earn enough to pay a living wage or invest in better equipment or safer working conditions.

The good news is that ensuring workers’ rights is not just fair – it’s good business, too. When workers are paid and treated fairly, they stay on the job and build their organization. They have the chance to develop personally, and become managers and leaders. They support their families and invest in their communities.

How Fairtrade reinforces workers’ rights

We start with workers’ rights, which are central to Fairtrade’s standards, and based on the conventions and recommendations of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The Fairtrade Standard for Hired Labour, which sets out the requirements for plantations and any large farms that employ regular workers, includes rules on health and safety while also establishing employment conditions for topics like wages, leave time, social security, and contracts.

Plantation workers also control the additional Fairtrade Premium that buyers pay when purchasing products on Fairtrade terms. Workers elect a Fairtrade Premium Committee which develops an annual plan on how to invest the Premium – for instance in school bursaries for children, a loan programme, house repairs or as direct cash payments to top up their wages. Expenditure of Premium on health, education and housing improves the standard of living of workers and their families and supports their disposable income. Fairtrade has dedicated significant attention and resources to enhance the capacity of workers to manage and distribute the Premium money wisely – and Premium use is audited regularly just like the other requirements. This differs from traditional CSR programmes in that workers decide themselves how to spend the Premium money, not a company.

We also go beyond standards so that workers know their rights and can advocate for themselves. For instance, while Fairtrade standards require employers to recognize the right of their employees to participate in a union, Fairtrade also organizes training activities to teach workers their rights and how to engage with management.

Frequently we collaborate with other organisations, including labour rights NGOs and trade union organisations, in our work with workers. Some of the activities relate to themes such as the rights of women, occupational health and safety, and wages. Others are meant to strengthen labour relations in general, for instance by improving the capacity of employers and unions to resolve grievances and disputes at a local level. A good example of the latter is the Dialogue Forum operating since 2017 in Peru to strengthen labour relations between farmer organisations and trade unions in the banana sector.

Workers at small farms

Workers on smallholder farms have many of the same rights, guaranteed through the Fairtrade Standard for Small-scale Producer Organizations. We updated this Standard in 2019 to include some additional protections, and applied it to farms that hire as few as 10 workers. Recognizing that seasonal and migrant workers are often transient and face particularly precarious employment situations, we are continuing to look for additional solutions that will give these workers more protection. A further dilemma is that workers at smallholder farms often lack formal employment status to ensure that their rights are adequately protected.

In light of these challenges, we have commissioned a contextual analysis to understand the reality of work arrangements between farmers and hired labour as well as the implications that any intervention may have. Given Fairtrade's mission to benefit both farmers and workers who are marginalized by trade, we want to make sure that any interventions balance their interests.

Fairtrade partners with labour rights and other organizations to make broad changes that improve the lives of all workers, not just those employed by Fairtrade certified farms and plantations. Our initiatives are meant to bring others along and drive change beyond the individual company level. Together with our partners we have advocated for structural changes that strengthen the rights of workers in banana, floriculture and tea sectors. For instance, in 2019, our concept for floor wages was incorporated in the Dutch sector covenant for responsible business conduct in floriculture.

We recognize that it’s not always enough to simply demand that employers do the right thing – they also need to be able to afford to do it. The Fairtrade Minimum Price and long-term contracts help employers to have the stability and resources to ensure the rights required by our standards. We understand that these mechanisms will need to go hand in hand with collective bargaining to ensure that workers can claim a fair share of value captured in supply chains.

Workers’ Rights Advisory Committee

Fairtrade is grateful to receive advice from labour rights and trade union organisations sitting on its Workers’ Rights Advisory Committee related to strategies, standards and programmes.

This committee is not only an advisory body but also a platform for dialogue between Fairtrade member organisations, including producer networks, and the international labour movement. Organisations on the committee remain entirely free to choose any advocacy approach they deem appropriate to influence Fairtrade’s policies.

We envision a world where all workers are empowered to negotiate their own wages and working conditions in a way that allows them to live and work in safety and dignity. Choosing Fairtrade means supporting standards and actions that put more power in the hands of workers themselves.