20 Apr 2020

Living through COVID-19: Fairtrade producers and farmers speak about the challenges

All over the world, Fairtrade farmers and producers are facing up to the new realities of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of them find their supply chains disrupted and their markets in lock-down, but they are also finding innovative and inspiring ways through the crisis. We caught up with some of the finalists in this year’s International Fairtrade Awards to see how they are coping.

Workers at the Fairtrade certified Desert Joy tomato farm in El-Hammah, Tunisia, arrive for the start of their shift.
© Fairtrade / Funnelweb Media

“We are locked down and the workers are unable to go out,” says Titus Pinto, Chair of the Fairtrade certified United Nilgiri Tea Estates (UNITEA) in Tamil Nadu, India. “We have issued 10kgs of rice, 1kg of sugar, 750 grammes of lentils, half a litre of cooking oil and 100 grammes each of salt, pepper and other spices to each family. This has all been paid for out of the Fairtrade Premium.”

Recognising the need to keep workers and their families safe, UNITEA have also initiated a public health programme. “We sanitise all dwellings and public places once every two days,” says Titus. “The estate doctor has kept the clinic and hospital open, and we have trained all workers on health and safety and precautionary measures. If they have to carry out essential work, they are only allowed to do so if they have a doctor’s certificate.”

In Salamina, Colombia, a poster urges residents: ‘It is time to come together as a community and think about how we can support each other.’ The 2,300 members of the Cooperativa de Caficultores del Norte de Caldas coffee co-operative are turning to traditional customs to help each other out. “We are running a campaign called ‘If I want help from my neighbours, I must also help them’ which aims to motivate solidarity among the communities,” says co-op coordinator Diana Marcela Castro Serna. “In the old days, community gatherings were the norm and people helped each other, especially during harvest time. Of course, now it is done through social networks.”

New rules have been brought in for coffee growers wishing to market their crop through the eight designated points of purchase in towns and villages around the region. “Farmers are allowed to visit the offices on certain days,” says Diana. “This way we can make sure they can sell their crop and buy any essential farm supplies.”

At the world’s first Fairtrade certified tomato grower – Desert Joy in El-Hammah, Tunisia – special measures have been introduced to ensure the workforce – which is 90% women – can continue to work safely. Floor markers show where to stand when clocking on and off, and extra busses have been laid on so that workers do not have to crowd together on their daily commute to and from the farm.

“Fortunately, so far, we have had no reported cases of coronavirus among the workers,” says Manager Ines Zairi. “At first, some of them were afraid to come to work, and that’s understandable, but we are working round the clock to disinfect busses, the canteen and all the workers’ facilities, as well as providing training on protection and how to spot symptoms. Our hygienists are working like bumblebees in all over the site to ensure hygiene!”

The Fairtrade Premium Committee at Desert Joy is also looking at using some of the funds to provide additional food for workers. “Because of the lock down, it’s very difficult for some workers from remote villages to get to food stores,” says Ines.

Flower growers in east Africa have been among the hardest hit. With flights between the region and European markets suspended, flower farms face major challenges.

“We have been hard hit by this crisis, the flow of orders is quite low and we have actually been forced to work with a skeleton workforce to minimise costs,” says Dennis Gakuru, the Fairtrade Officer at Valentine Growers near Nairobi, Kenya, which exports 27 million roses each year. “We have had to send 70% of our workers on both paid and unpaid leave. Fairtrade is needed more than ever, and we are looking at how we can assist our workers to survive – right now, putting bread on the table is the priority. We should be able to provide our workers with food for their households for a few months.”

Helping workers and families to stay safe is key, says Dennis. “I have just conducted a need assessment and found our dispensary needs hand washers and sanitisers, as well as masks and gloves for nurses so they can continue serving the community. We hope to be able to provide more next week.”

It’s not just producers and farmers who are feeling the impacts of Covid-19. Traders such as Nudie Jeans – who make and sell Fairtrade organic fashion all over the world – have been forced to scale back operations significantly. “Sales are down everywhere – online, retail and our own stores. We have already closed many of our stores – temporarily we hope – and we have reduced working hours in our office,” says sustainability manager Sandya Lang from the company headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Nudie Jeans sources much of its cotton from the Fairtrade certified Chetna Organic company in Yavatmal, central India. “Most of the factories we work with have closed and it’s having a big impact on the workers, both short and long term,” says Sandya. “In the meantime, we’re trying to prepare as much as possible for when production and retail starts again. At this moment, it’s not clear how the pandemic will impact production workers and farmers, but we’re sure it will put them in an even more difficult situation.”

We’ll keep you updated on how our awards nominees, and other Fairtrade farmers, producers and workers are handling the pandemic over the coming weeks and months. You can read more here about how Fairtrade’s work to support farmers and workers to address the long-term impacts.

This article first appeared on 17 April 2020 on Coop News and is reproduced with their permission.