10 Feb 2021

Fairtrade Enhances Women’s Rights and Well-Being on Ecuador’s Flower Farms

A recently published study on Ecuadorian flower farms shows that Fairtrade “bolsters the well-being and rights of female workers in and beyond the workplace.” But in many cases there is still a long way to go until women are fully empowered.

2020 flower workers Ponte Tresa Ecuador 850
Workers at a Fairtrade certified flower farm in Ecuador
(c) Jean Claude Coostant / Fairtrade Max Havelaar

Dr Laura Raynolds, Director of the Center for Fair & Alternative Trade at Colorado State University, says that of the three main standards used in the Ecuadorian flower sector - Fairtrade, Fair Trade USA and Rainforest Alliance/UTZ - Fairtrade has “the most far-reaching gender standards.” However, Professor Raynolds warns there are no quick fixes. “Fairtrade does help promote gendered rights and empowerment, but for female flower workers in Ecuador this is a very complex process.”

The study focuses on four of Ecuador’s ten certified flower farms which together employ about 2300 workers – just over half of whom are women. Research with a random sample of workers suggests Fairtrade supports enhanced wellbeing, stable full-time jobs, equal wages, benefits and working conditions, as well as maternity leave and childcare services which are rare for women in rural Ecuador. Compared to other standards, “Fairtrade has over the years increased its focus on women’s specific forms of disadvantage and empowerment needs…adopted a more explicit gender emphasis…[and] adopted a more explicitly gendered approach in its internal activities.”

Key findings

With very few employment alternatives, Fairtrade flower plantations offer a lifeline to rural women, providing essential income, enabling their families to thrive and progress, and increasing their independence. Female flower workers have more control over money - a third jointly manage household finances and 38 percent are solely responsible - although many women still need their husband’s permission to look for a job and some men will not let their wives work. Participants recount how in their parent’s generation “only men worked…women couldn’t find work, even if the children were hungry," yet now it is common for single and married women to have flower jobs and to contribute especially to the education of their children.

Fairtrade increases women’s awareness of their legal and labour rights, fair treatment, company benefits and policies, anti-sexual harassment and other forms of violence, including grievance procedures and helps them assert those rights both in and out of the workplace, and enhances their self-determination. Fairtrade Standards prohibit any behaviour that is sexually intimidating, abusive or exploitative. As women are still likely to be significantly less educated than men, Fairtrade supports girls’ education by funding schools and courses through the Premium. A middle-age worker elucidates education’s transformative power based on her own recent high-school completion: “Everything has changed, I have understanding. From this comes capacity. There is freedom. I have more opportunities.” One worker explains, “The door was smaller before, now we women are more empowered. Trainings help us learn our rights, increase our understanding, how to give our opinion.”

However, in many cases, there is still a long way to go towards women’s empowerment and dignity. Women also reported that they are constrained from taking part in the Workers’ Committee due to marital and household obligations or just because their husband didn’t agree. Sexual harassment and domestic violence are reported to be pervasive and many women are still reluctant to report or discuss specific incidents, due to their resignation to poor treatment or fear of reprisals. Fairtrade International has followed up on these specific findings from the report in adherence to our protection policy and procedures for children and vulnerable adults.

Targeted benefits:
Unlike many flower plantations, Fairtrade flower farms offer paid maternity leave; allow women to continue working after having children; and provide childcare and pre-school facilities, without which mothers would struggle to work.

In addition, Fairtrade bans pregnancy tests when hiring, and the firing of pregnant workers - practices common in Ecuador’s flower sector. Pregnant and nursing women are not allowed to use dangerous chemicals, fumigate greenhouses or engage in hazardous work.

Women are proportionately represented on Fairtrade Premium Committees, which decide how to spend the Premium. Sitting on the committee increases their knowledge and self-confidence, as well as leadership, accounting and project management skills. A female respondent with a second-grade education recounts with pride, “I have gained a lot from being a Premium Committee member. I was very scared at first, but I learned so much…I can now plan and oversee projects on my own, even budgeting.” Yet this woman goes on to discuss the martial strife her committee participation caused, highlighting the costs women may pay for seeking new opportunities.

The vast majority said they and their families have benefitted from Premium projects: 96 percent have accessed educational programmes; 89 percent have used medical services; 69 percent have used dental services; and 60 percent took out low-interest loans. Female workers and their children are significantly more likely to access educational programmes, and on two Fairtrade plantations, Premium-subsidised laundry facilities reduce the amount of work women have to do on weekends.

Wages and working conditions:
Workers on Fairtrade flower farms get equal pay, and although women tend to earn slightly less than men, the report indicates that there is no significant relationship between gender and wages. Those surveyed said their earnings allow them to buy healthier food, invest in their children’s education, buy furniture or renovate their homes. Most households, however, still rely on additional income from farming or running a small business.

Fairtrade Standards are stricter than Ecuadorian law in challenging the labour abuses rife in the flower industry. Workers have written contracts, punctual pay and legal entitlements. Unlike many non-certified plantations, overtime must be voluntary and paid at time-and-a-half. 78 percent of the women surveyed said they preferred their current job on a Fairtrade certified plantation to their previous employment. “I have worked on other flower farms and there is no comparison…at the last farm we had to stay late to finish, and they didn’t pay overtime…my sister works on another farm…they keep her late without pay, she wants to work here.”

Tough Times for Ecuador's flower farms in wake of COVID-19

This research was conducted before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a devastating impact on the Ecuadorian flower sector, with the loss of up to 30,000 jobs, and endangering the progress that has been made on Fairtrade flower farms. Now more than ever, we urge people to choose Fairtrade flowers and continue to support our work to empower women in the flower industry.

For further information, contact Melanie Dürr, Global Product Manager for Flowers and Plants.

Raynolds, Laura T. forthcoming “Gender Equity, Labor Rights and Women's Empowerment: Lessons from Fairtrade Certification in Ecuador Flower Plantations." Agriculture and Human Values. October 2020, doi:10.1007/s10460-020-10171-0
See a full-text view-only version of the paper