Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fair Trade and the Tea Industry

This post on the truth about tea is by guest blogger, Alex Zorach, Founder and Editor of RateTea 

The tea industry has a myriad of ethical, human rights, and environmental issues that parallel those of any industry involving the production of goods in less wealthy countries, imported into wealthier countries. An outstanding, in-depth summary of these issues can be found in Sustainability Issues in the Tea Sector, a 2008 report from the the SOMO Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations; this report focuses on India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia, Kenya and Malawi. China, another major producer, is not covered in this report, but has similar issues, on top of its own unique issues associated with its government that combines elements of capitalism and authoritarianism. In this post I will explain some issues specific to the tea industry itself, and I will point the reader towards conscious decisions that can help people buying tea to make decisions that are more likely to shape the economic landscape in a way that helps tea producers and workers in the country where tea is produced.  

How and why do profits concentrate mostly in wealthier countries? The tea industry has a long supply chain, which involves growers, processing factories (which range from larger regional factories to tiny operations smaller than a single house), bulk tea auctions, importers, blenders, packers, marketers, and a variety of support industries. In conventional trade, the bulk of the profits go to the blending, packing, and marketing industries, which tend to reside mostly in wealthier Western countries. People within the tea industry often describe the processes of blending, packing, and marketing in terms of "adding value", which I see as a euphemism masking the essential reality that the price of the product has been marked up considerably. Whether or not any value has truly been added, in terms of resulting in a better experience for tea drinkers, is a subjective question. A higher profit for the seller, and a greater portion of costs flowing into the wealthy country in which the tea is sold, results in a lower portion of the purchase price going to the original producer. Below I will show how a conscious shopper can partially address this issue, without sacrificing price or quality.  

Tea vs. coffee: a few key differences: People often treat tea together with coffee, when thinking about the industries, because the two are both caffeinated beverages, and both drinks tend to be sold in the same stores, often side-by-side, and both industries involve labor-intensive picking, but there are some important distinctions between the two:
  • The tea plant is hardier with respect to cold than the coffee plant. Coffee requires a tropical climate, whereas tea grows and thrives in mild subtropical climates and at higher elevations in the tropics. This means, among other things, that there are many regions which can produce tea commercially, but cannot feasibly grow coffee.
  • As a bulk commodity, tea tends to cost considerably less per cup than coffee. This has several implications; it opens the door to price gouging by businesses selling tea in the West (thus further concentrating profits in wealthy countries), but it also means that informed shoppers can buy remarkably high-quality tea for a reasonable price, and can comfortably afford products that have been produced in more ethically and environmentally sound ways.
  • In many regions of the world, tea production pays considerably less per acre than coffee. People unfamiliar with the tea and coffee industries usually are surprised to learn that, climate-wise, tea can be commercially grown throughout much of South and Central America, and that the greater economic prosperity of these regions, rather than the climate, explains why most tea is produced in Asia and Africa.
  • Tea production has increased more than demand in recent years, leading to a fall in prices. This has created economic pressure that has led to falling wages for seasonal laborers engaged in tea production.

Smallholders, small-scale tea producers, and seasonal labor wages: Small producers, called smallholders, have come to dominate tea production in Sri Lanka and Kenya. In Kenya, these smallholders mostly have tiny plots, with 90% of the total tea crop being grown on plots of 1 acre or less. In the activist culture in the U.S., people often have a tendency to assume "smaller is better", operating on the false premise that exploitative models are imposed by large, powerful corporations onto individuals, and that smaller operations will necessarily result in better working conditions. This is not necessarily true. In Kenya, Sri Lanka, and India, small farmers are more easily able to evade labor laws and other laws governing tea plantations. According to SOMO's report, these small operations are viable in large part because they can pay less for labor, especially seasonal labor. Some activists in Western countries may think of these models in terms of the tea estate owners exploiting their workers, but the owners themselves are often working within difficult economic constraints. I find it unempowering to think of these estate owners as exploiting their workers; I prefer to refrain from passing value judgements on people, and instead focus on the system that creates bad incentives and leaves people with little or no viable alternatives.  

Fair Trade and other approaches: Fair Trade, as administered by FLO and IFAT, is one of the major approaches to solve this problem. Fair Trade aims to addresses multiple issues at once, putting a minimum on the portion that goes to producers, creating traceability of the tea, and aiming to address. Fair Trade is not perfect; for a particularly scathing criticism of fair trade in the tea industry, you can watch The Bitter Taste of Tea: A Journey into the World of Fair Trade, an hour long program which shows how, in many cases, there is little difference between Fair Trade and non-Fair Trade operations. Another, weaker form of certification, is run by the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), which has also been criticized on similar grounds; you can read an overview of the ETP and criticisms of it that I wrote. Some time ago, I conversed online with Sonam Paljor Lama, who has worked with tea estates in Darjeeling, and who briefly ran an online tea company selling tea directly from Darjeeling, and he validated the major concern expressed in the film, explaining that most workers travel frequently between estates seeking work, and that the conditions are likely to vary little regardless of whether or not the teas are Fair Trade certified. I am hopeful though that critiques of Fair Trade tea, coupled with increased transparency due to the information age, can to strengthen the Fair Trade certification system so that it can address more of these issues in the long-run.  

My recommendations for buying tea: Other than buying Fair Trade certified tea, there are other conscious decisions that tea drinkers and people shopping for tea in the West can do to influence where the money flows in the tea industry.
  • Buy single origin tea, rather than blends - Blending is a practice carried out primarily in wealthy countries. When you buy blended tea (a generic tea marked only as "tea", "green tea" or "orange pekoe black tea"), it is more likely that the teas that went into the blend were lower quality, and purchased for a lower price. With single-origin tea, it is more likely that a greater portion of the price you pay will reach the original producer. 
  • Buy loose-leaf tea, rather than tea bags - The packaging of tea into tea bags, besides using energy and resources that are discarded, also tends to concentrate profit in wealthy countries. By buying loose-leaf tea, you not only reduce waste and resource usage, but you make it more likely that a greater portion of the price you are paying reaches the producers.
  • Seek out quality - The biggest economic pinch, driving the race to the bottom, resulting in poor working conditions and environmental degradation, comes when producers sell tea as a bulk commodity. Unique and artisan teas can fetch a higher price for the producer. Kenya in particular, which has until recently produced mainly bulk tea for blending, is rapidly becoming a global leader in tea innovation, developing new cultivars of tea, as well as putting their own unique spin on traditional Chinese and Japanese styles of tea. Because the skill and art resides with the producer of artisan teas, the producer has greater agency and is able to command a higher share of profits than in the case of bulk commodity tea. Innovation also stands to help both producers and tea growing countries in the long-run, as growers develop cultivars better adapted to local conditions and more resilient in the face of climate change.
  • Comparison shop, and buy reasonably priced tea - One unfortunate side-effect of the Fair Trade movement is the idea that paying more for a tea is the best way to achieve ethical and environmental goals. But from the standpoint of a shopper concerned with the conditions for tea producers and pickers, the worst outcome is to spend a large amount of money on a low-quality tea on which a large markup has been charged, where the profit is mostly being taken by the final seller. Shopping around, and making sure that you are paying a reasonable price and getting good value, especially whenever you buy tea that is not fair trade certified, can help put a cap on the most obscene profits. Then, when you do splurge, make sure you are spending in accordance with your values.
  • Buy direct sourced tea - The tea industry is hardly transparent; retailers rarely reveal their sources of tea, and wholesalers rarely reveal their clients. A claim that a company directly sources their teas from a region of production is not a guarantee of this fact. But, I would recommend avoiding buying from companies that do not identify anything about the origin of their teas. Farmer-owned cooperatives with a retail presence, which may or may not be fair trade certified, can also be a good source of tea. A few tea gardens, like Makaibari Estate in Darjeeling, India, have a web presence and sell some tea directly. Makaibari has been a global pioneer in organic and biodynamic tea production, as well as in Fair Trade and the empowerment of women. Companies shipping directly from a tea's region of production are becoming more common now both in China and India. One example of such a company is Yunnan Sourcing, specializing in Pu-erh and other teas from China's Yunnan province, which sells many products at a fraction of the price at which they are available from other retailers.

Is it better to buy a box of organic certified tea bags, blended and mechanically processed, or a loose-leaf artisan tea from a small producer, directly sourced from a tea company that does not have Fair Trade certification? I don't know the answer to this question. But I am personally not convinced that Fair Trade certified tea is always the better option; I think it is more productive to think holistically. While I often seek out the Fair Trade label, and encourage others to do so, I would recommend for people to consider more factors than just Fair Trade certification alone in choosing which products to buy--not just with tea but with all products. The main danger is that we fall into thinking that Fair Trade instantly solves the social, economic, and environmental issues associated with trade between wealthier and less wealthy countries. It does not. The Fair Trade system is powerful, but is in need of continuous pressure to improve on reaching its goals, and is best combined with other approaches to tackle the underlying issues from as many angles as possible. 

Alex Zorach, Founder and Editor of RateTea 

Message from Journey for Fair Trade Blogger, Mitch Teberg:

The above posts presents the views and professional opinions of Alex Zorach, and do not represent my own research. In June, 2012, Alex approached me with his independent information website providing consumer information on sourcing tea. His site does not sell any products, nor does it contain any affiliate links. reviewing and considering Alex's unique insight to the tea industry, I invited him to contribute this post. As a Fair Trade advocate, I believe we can progressively improve Fair Trade when we review well-founded critiques and as consumers make demands on Fair Trade certification organizations to raise the bar for certification. Most importantly, it means to improve the monitoring of certified organizations. I invite consumers not only to comment below, but to take act an active role and contact FLO and Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) directly with your concerns.

If you have a Fair Trade related issue, project, or perspective you would like to share as a guest blogger on Journey for Fair Trade, please feel free to contact me directly.  On a personal note, my Journey for Fair Trade has come to it's completion and after a period of rest, I have endeavored on yet another journey...

From June, 2012, I have resided in Kabul, Afghanistan as a UN Volunteer with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I am working in the National Institution Building Project (NIBP) which is an effort to improve the capacity of ministerial, provincial, and district level government officials to deliver government services to the Afghan people. As NATO troops begin departing prior to the 2014 deadline, the ability of government officials to provide social services will prove vital to Afghanistan's future and the success of their fledgling democracy as they face an insurgency committed to death and destruction; for it is far easier to destroy than to construct. For this reason, I have accepted a volunteer position as my personal contribution to the future of people who have suffered heavily under three decades of war.

My work here is only possible with the selfless ongoing support of my wife, Chou and our son, Thoreau residing in Vietnam while I am on assignment. 

Mitch Teberg, MA
Capacity Development Advisor
National Institution Building Project
United Nations Development Programme
Shah Mahmood Ghazi Watt
Kabul, Afghanistan Follow us: Description: Description: Description: Description: cid:image003.png@01CC8762.CBA6C1F0  Description: Description: Description: Description: cid:image004.jpg@01CC8762.CBA6C1F0  Description: Description: Description: Description: cid:image005.png@01CC8762.CBA6C1F0

Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day: Gender Equity and Non-Discrimination

The Global Fair Trade Movement is founded on principles which can be viewed as a living document; a "life-form" that evolves and progresses with time. As members we are enabled to keep our movement relevant by periodically reflecting upon and revisiting these principles. In June of 2011, recognizing the importance of cultural influences, the WFTO improved Principle 3 on Fair Trading Practices:

Fair Trade recognizes, promotes and protects the cultural identity and traditional skills of small producers as reflected in their craft designs, food products and other related services.

On this International Women's Day, I propose two essential changes to Principle Six: Commitment to Non Discrimination, Gender Equity and Freedom of Association. 

Firstly, we have identified Non-Discrimination as a principle we abide by, however there has been an oversight in defining the term itself. As it stands, Principle 6 simply states, "The organization does not discriminate in hiring, remuneration, access to training, promotion, termination or retirement based on race, caste, national origin, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, union membership, political affiliation, HIV/Aids status or age." However, can we improve upon this single sentence; can we provide more clarity to answer the basic question: What is Discrimination?  

When an organization utilizes a Rights-Based Approach they recognize poverty as injustice and includes marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation as central causes of poverty. To integrate a Rights-Based Approach is to strengthen our trade partners not only in trade relations, but in their quality of life; to enjoy the freedoms internationally recognized as inherent to all human beings. Isn't this what we want for our producers?

Admittedly many corporations around the world have incorporated policies to clearly define this issue and it is time the Fair Trade Movement does the same. However, we can do much better than a providing a corporate framework or dictionary definition of discrimination. If we integrate a Rights-Based Approach to Fair Trade, we don't need to look far in order to find a fitting definition which can be readily applied. 

The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is the convention with the most signatory nations of all the human rights treaties. Article 1 of this groundbreaking treaty presents a clear definition of discrimination which can easily be incorporated into our existing principles.
"‘Discrimination against women’ shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” 
 – United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,
Article 1

Let's break this down more carefully to clarify what this Article is stating; to examine to actions, conditions and impacts that define discrimination:
  • The term “discrimination against women” shall mean
  • any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the
  • effect or purpose of
  • impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women,
  • irrespective of their marital status on a basis of equality of men and women,
  • of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. 
We can clearly see that this definition looks at impacts far beyond hiring, remuneration, access to training, promotion, termination or retirement. In fact, it looks at the restriction of women's human rights as a means to determine if an action is discriminatory.

Discrimination defined in CEDAW is clear, and easy to understand. Unfortunately the wording of Fair Trade Principle 6 fails to recognize the many forms of discrimination:
  • Direct or Indirect (Intended or Unintended) – Indirect includes a neutral law which has the effect of discriminating
  • In law (de jure) or in practice (de facto)
  • Present or Past/Structural, which is to say "historical discrimination"
  • In all fields (civil, politcal, social, cultural, economic)
  • Inter-sectional / Multiple Discrimination
By clarifying inter-sectional, CEDAW recognizes that groups of women suffer multiple discrimination based on additional grounds such as:
  • Race or Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Class
  • Sexuality
Why is incorporating this definition important?
Considering a majority of the global inhabitants (51%), and a majority of Fair Trade Producers are women who experience various forms of discrimination on a daily basis, the Fair Trade Movement must take a more active role in eliminating discrimination against women. We can also broaden this definition to include discrimination based on race, caste, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, union membership, political affiliation, HIV/Aids status or age.

For the sake of clarity, I propose rewording of the Principle of Non-Discrimination in such a way as to integrate a Rights-Based Approach to our work: 

The organization does not discriminate in hiring, remuneration, access to training, promotion, termination or retirement. The term “discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex, race, caste, national origin, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, union membership, political affiliation, HIV/Aids status or age which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by anyone, irrespective of their marital status on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

The second proposed change to our principle of Gender Equity is recognizing women's right to a Paid Maternity Leave

As it stands, our Fair Trade principle on Gender Equity does not recognize this right. As a matter of fact, it only recognizes pregnant women in one sentence, "The organization takes into account the special health and safety needs of pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers." Initially this point may seem unnecessary, or a Western luxury, but when we view this from a Rights-Based perspective, women are already entitled to a paid maternity leave and it is our collective duty to uphold this right. If we, as a global movement believe that we stand for the rights of women, we must insist all Fair Trade producers, buyers, exporters, importers, wholesalers  and retailers recognize women's right to a paid maternity leave.

United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

Article 11
2. In order to prevent discrimination against women on the grounds of marriage or maternity and to ensure their effective right to work, States Parties shall take appropriate measures

(a) To prohibit, subject to the imposition of sanctions, dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy or of maternity leave and discrimination in dismissals on the basis of marital status;
(b) To introduce maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits without loss of former employment, seniority or social allowances;
(c) To encourage the provision of the necessary supporting social services to enable parents to combine family obligations with work responsibilities and participation in public life, in particular through promoting the establishment and development of a network of child-care facilities; 
(d) To provide special protection to women during pregnancy in types of work proved to be harmful to them.

By incorporating a Paid Maternity Leave into our Principles we are not introducing a foreign concept, but integrating internationally recognized rights entitled to all women regardless of where they reside. 

Integrating Paid Maternity Leave with Fair Trade Producers

In 2011, while working with Helvetas Intercooperation, a Swiss NGO, in Vietnam we encountered a common practice amongst Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs). According to Vietnamese law, SMEs are required by law to financially support the women on maternity leave. This is done through purchasing a Social Insurance where the workers pay 8.5% of their salary and SMEs pay 20% of their pay for the triple insurance coverage plan. However, most SMEs do not purchase this insurance for their workers thereby cutting costs. The consensus amongst SMEs in Vietnam regarding maternity leave seems to be that women are entitled to an unpaid leave and many return to work afterwards. According to the law, those who don’t provide them with insurance must pay out of pocket the same amount for maternity leave. When women assert their rights to a paid leave, more frequently than not, they are fired without separation pay and not welcome to return to the position they once held. 

Helvetas wanted to integrate a paid maternity leave into the contract with producers, however, we quickly discovered a difference between the Helvetas standard of 6 weeks maternity leave and Vietnamese law. Maternity leave in Vietnam as per the Labour Law is:
  • Normal working condition: 4 months paid maternity leave
  • Hardship (rural / military / dangerous environment): 5 months paid maternity leave
  • Disabled women: 6 months paid maternity leave
Our predicament was to write a policy in the contract which can be implemented globally. Through dialogue and discussion with producers in Vietnam, we came to set a policy that is acceptable to both Helvetas and Vietnamese producers: 

Producer offers whichever is greater: a minimum paid Maternity Leave of not less than 6 weeks or what is established in the national labour laws, regardless of contracting status or time in employment; plus additional leave on an as-needed basis with a guarantee of resuming employment upon return.

So, in short, incorporating a Paid Maternity Leave is not only possible, it is essential. Without integrating this right, we neglect to uphold our responsibility to women worldwide.

Today I submit to you that Fair Trade, as a Global Movement, must integrate a Rights-Based Approach to strengthen our trade partners not only in trade relations, but in their quality of life. We can start through a comprehensive integration of women's rights into our principles of Gender Equity and Non-Discrimination. 


Mitch Teberg, MA 
International Consultant
Sustainable Development / Fair Trade/ Women's Rights and Gender
Researcher / Trainer / Consultant   

Feel free to add your comments, thoughts or ideas below or catch me on facebook. For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable version of this post on pdf:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Human Trafficking - A Survivor's Story

In 2005, I had volunteered with the Vietnam Handicraft Research and Promotion Center ( on an Oxfam Quebec project in Hanoi, Quang Ninh and Ha Giang provinces. The project aimed to reintegrate survivors of human trafficking through skills training in handicraft production. Working with survivors gave me an opportunity to hear their stories of pain, betrayal, shame, and rejection (Journey 2005 - Cambodia and Vietnam).  However, it was their collective spirit that motivated me to support their cause. I suggested the name for their group be WIN since it represented their attitude, and the members really liked it.

In Hai Duong province, 2009, I conducted a month-long training program for Gruppo Trentino di Volontariato (GTV) from Trento, Italy, in a project where we replicated the successful aspects of the Oxfam Quebec project. This project was expanded to include domestic violence and impoverished women who were the head of households. In December, 2011, this group finally became an independent, self sustaining entity. You can connect with both the WIN group and the Kim Thanh Cooperative in Hai Duong through the Fair Trade shop at HRPC (Click Here)

A few months ago a friend, Luke Dale-Harris who works with the Centre for Women’s Development and the Peace House Shelter in Hanoi, had approached me inquiring of my experiences with survivors of human trafficking. I also put him in contact with a few people and organizations working in the field of reintegrating survivors of human trafficking in Hanoi. Most recently, in an effort to raise awareness of the tragic impact of Human Trafficking, Luke has written the following insightful article depicting a personal journey and attempts to heal:


The jagged line that falters its way across the map, weaving over and around the contours that connect Vietnam and China, represents the border between these two countries to all, yet means distinctly different things to everyone. To the traveler it’s a challenge, the trader an opportunity, the farmer an inconvenience, the consumer an opportunity for cheap goods and the politician a threat. Yet when you reach it, at any point apart from the major border stations, it dissolves, like a mirage. You are left guessing at which country you’re in from the brands of motorbikes being driven and the writing on discarded noodle packets. The scenery is, of course, identical, while the people who move within it are often from the same ethnic group, wear the same clothes, live in the same style houses and speak the same language. 

Historically, the people of Northern Vietnam and Southern China have not been itinerant types, generally remaining tied to the land where they are born throughout their lives unless forced into movement by outside forces. Therefore, for many, this scar that runs through the middle of their land, dividing a people that it is largely united, is less important than you might imagine, lying beyond the peaks that mark the edges of the world they have carved for themselves. 

Yet the ever increasing amount of roads that cut through these mountains, steadily filling with larger, faster vehicles coming to and from far flung lands, suggests something else; not a world that has shrunk, as the imperialist’s cliché tells us, but a world that his infinitely expanded. The expansion has, in many ways, relieved much of the pressure of life in the rural border zones, some of the poorest areas in Vietnam, bringing money in through trade both domestic and international. However, with increased growth comes increased awareness, and the material inequality that lies at the heart of globalization soon becomes clear, often fueling desires less for social justice than personal wealth. If there’s any one law of global capitalism it’s that it’s a game for individuals in which nothing is out of bounds for trade.

Do, a 20 year old woman of Hmong ethnicity, is a resident at the Peace House shelter for former victims of human trafficking in Hanoi. Talking of her home town in the border province of Lao Cai she says that conditions have been going downhill in recent years for young women like herself as, though poverty is no longer a problem, they live in fear of being trafficked. ‘In my village alone quite a few people have been trafficked over recent years. To me, this is a sign that society is in decline

The official information and statistics available on the subject of trafficking in Vietnam is limited and as such it is difficult to gauge the exact extent of the problem, with the real figures being largely lost within the huge amount of unregulated emigration (between 30 and 40% of all Vietnamese emigration). Estimates vary hugely and what figures there are often say more about the attention the problem is being given than the extent of the problem itself.

Neither the UN nor the Vietnamese Women’s Union (VWU) could provide any reliable statistics and both pointed in the direction of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security who offer the often repeated figure that there were 2, 935 Vietnamese victims of Human trafficking between 2004 and 2009. However, this is hard to believe when the other available number is Hagar International’s estimate that there have been 400,000 victims since 1990. 

In talking to Madam Thuy, the director of the Human Trafficking department for VWU, it is apparent that even though the numbers aren’t there to prove it, the general consensus among experts in the field is one of apprehension that the problem is increasing and that, as Do mentioned, it is not as simple as just looking to poverty to explain it. 

Of course there are no solid rules as to what factors lead someone to becoming a victim of trafficking’ Thuy says, ‘though we do look for things they share in common to try and better understand the causes’

Although hesitant in citing these common factors, throughout the interview Thuy comes back again and again to the subject of family. She argues that it is the disintegration of this structure that lies at the root of trafficking in Vietnam, whether it results in kidnappings directly from the home, the selling of one’s relatives or the susceptibility of young girls to being tricked into leaving their homes, only to be kidnapped and sold. 

Ironically enough, in China it is often the demand for an ideal family model that fuels the industry. With the one child policy resulting in a preference for male children and subsequently a distinct shortage of girls available for marriage, both young women and very young boys are high in demand. As such, in contrast to the global trend in which girls are usually trafficked for prostitution and boys for labour, in the north of Vietnam they are primarily sold as wives and sons to Chinese families. 

At root though, there remain many similarities between the Chinese and Vietnamese family models. Both equally informed by the Confucian code, with its emphasis placed on hierarchical relationships and filial loyalty, the family remains the core social unit in each country. In Vietnam it permeates all areas of culture, through language, religion and politics; its influence inescapable.

It is, Thuy suggest, the clash between this familial tradition and the culture of individualism and opportunism inherent in modernization which causes much of the present tension in Vietnamese families. This same clash can go a long way to explaining the drastic measures taken to procure family members in China. 

Born into a Hmong family and the sixth of eight siblings, seven girls and one adulated son, Do’s future was in the making way before she was around to take any part in it. Although she talks of how she loved studying and dreamt of growing up to be a teacher, her parents had other plans and pulled her out of school at the age of 14 to get married. A complete education was reserved just for her brother, who, after finishing high school, went on to work as a local governmental officer. However, at no point in describing her childhood does Do reveal any resentment for either her brother or the decisions that her parents made for her, talking fondly of all her family and her brother in particular.

In hearing of the current trend which Thuy had earlier mentioned, that significantly fewer girls finish their education than boys, she shrugs and begins to talk of the man she married. ‘At first I didn’t like my husband. I didn’t even know him. He was just a friend of my brothers who my parents had chosen for me. However, when we were married and living together I quickly came to realize that he was a good man, just like my parents had told me. He worked in the fields with me and always worked hard. Never once did he beat or even shout at me.’

Four years into their marriage Do’s husband got kidney disease and within 3 months he was dead. Do was left alone with a ten year old daughter, a half built house and the bank pestering her for a debt repayment that she couldn’t afford. Shortly after his death she was robbed, the thieves taking many of the animals that were her livelihood and the pump which brought water to her home. ‘It was a terrible time for me and I was very afraid……. There are many thieves and drug addicts in my area. Without anyone to protect me and work the farm I felt I couldn’t survive.’ 

It is customary in Vietnam for the wife to move into her husband’s parent’s home immediately after their marriage, from then on living as part of his family. However, there is no such rigid tradition to determine what happens to the wife in the event of her husband’s death. The widow is not generally expected to go onto marry, and with their son gone, the incentive for his family to continue to act as host disappears. Do talks of a sense of hostility she felt from her parents in law in the months she was living with them following her husband’s death. With him gone they started looking to the daughter he had left behind, now the sole figure to carry on their family lineage. 
Hailing from the Kinh ethnicity, by far the largest and most powerful ethnic group in Vietnam, Do’s parents in law were determined to keep their granddaughter firmly within the Kinh tradition. After my husband’s death his parents decided that they wanted to bring up my daughter on their own terms. They refused to let me take her back to my parents’ house.’ 
Determined to become financially independent so she could look after her child, Do took a job in a wood factory nearby where she was paid 2,000,000 VND ($100) a month. After four months though she fell sick and they fired her. She moved back home with her parents to work the field but, unable to make any money for herself she found herself living like a child again, separated from her own daughter and unable to take any part in her upbringing. 
It was at Tet, The Vietnamese New Year, when her cousin came back to visit from the provincial capital of Lao Cai where he had moved to find work. ‘It was a very bad time for me as I couldn’t afford anything for the celebration. When my cousin came though things changed. He was very generous and sympathetic and he gave me 15,000,000 VND ($750) to help look after my child.
When he left and Do went back to working the field she began to contemplate moving to the city. ‘His life seemed so comfortable compared to ours where we have to work in the fields for long hours every day, are constantly tired and get almost no money for ourselves. I thought that if I moved to Lao Cai I could find the independence that I couldn’t get at home.’ 
More pressingly, the interest on the debt which her husband had left behind was piling up and she needed to find a job to pay it off. Lao Cai seemed to offer the opportunity to do this, find her independence again and raise enough money to give her child a good upbringing. 
She had been toying with the idea of emigrating for a while by the time her cousin returned one morning and offered to take her back to Lao Cai with him. She was to live with him and work as a shop assistant, doing reasonable hours and earning a high salary. The only catch was that they had to leave immediately. 
He told me that we had fifteen minutes before we must leave. I wanted to ask permission to go from my parents but he warned me that if I did so the position would be withdrawn. I had to come with him in secret. I agreed, taking nothing with me but a few clothes.’
In her family and parents in law’s eyes she had abandoned them and her daughter. In reality though, her cousin had promised that she could phone them when she got to Lao Cai and come back and visit whenever she wanted. It was later that day she found out this was a lie.
‘When we arrived in Lao Cai it was about 5pm. We had travelled there by motorbike but on the outskirts of the town we met with 3 Chinese men who took us to the centre in their car. We went to a restaurant where we had dinner and when we had finished eating my cousin told me that I must go with the Chinese men. Not knowing where or why I refused. He beat me for this. Later, around 9pm he took me to a bridge where he told me that if I didn’t go with the Chinese men then he would kill me and throw me into the river and then he would return to my village and kill my family. After some time of thinking I decided to go with them. I had no choice.’
From this point on Do’s tale reads like one of any commodity that is sold through an illicit market; she is carted around, repeatedly changes hands, stored away in small huts and put on sale at various markets. Every time she acted out she was beaten back into submission. Eventually she was bought by a 27 year old Chinese man who chose her for his wife from three other girls because, she claims, she was the healthiest looking, having been on the market for the shortest amount of time. 
It was only three months before she was bought home by Chinese police, in good health and of still stable mind. She is one of the luckiest.

Do’s story of being sold by a relative is in no way unusual in Vietnam. It is estimated that over 50% of victims are tricked into being trafficked by acquaintances of theirs, often friends, relatives or neighbours who promise work and a better lifestyle. They will make about $100 for the trade of a single woman.
When Do describes her cousin though she displays little anger, just a sense of surprise that he could have done this to her. ‘He was always close to our family, helping us work the land when he was younger and then receiving help from my parents later on when they gave him a plot of land and assisted him in farming it. I never suspected that he could be a threat to me.’ 
Neither Do nor Madam Thuy could give any insight into how someone could commit such a crime to someone they have known and loved, both resorting to just telling stories of other similar instances. 
Do talks of the many woman she knew who are now missing and of the mothers who have come to visit her since she returned in hope of finding some clue as to where their daughter is.
Thuy remembers a middle-aged woman who sold all four of her nieces in one go. 
However, when asked about how so few of the perpetrators go unpunished for their crimes, despite the high risk of trafficking an associate who often finds their way home, they have much more to say.
Many of the girls don’t dare go to the police’ Thuy says. ‘They are afraid of the consequences and they want to forget the whole thing’. 
Do explains. ‘In Vietnam the culture deems anyone who has been trafficked guilty. When I returned I felt like it was me who had committed a crime, I felt guilty for what had happened to me in China’.
Beyond this, the law refuses to recognize a victim’s verdict as sufficient ground for prosecution. Getting the police involved may cause a public scandal, bring attention to their situation and has no guarantee of success. In the rare cases the victims do go to the law the perpetrator often gets wind of it and escapes.
Returning home to shame, alienation and insufficient legal support, female victims often find themselves living alone and in poverty, struggling within the margins of a society that emphasizes the collective and abandons the individual. With little possibility of reintegration and the almost impossible prospect of making it alone, many of them go back into trafficking, though this time not as victims but as perpetrators. UN statistics estimate that as many as 70% of traffickers are women and that the majority of these are former victims. 
The reception of victims on their return into Vietnam is a major problem’ says Thuy.’ When girls come back to a family that rejects them and a society that judges them unclean it has both personal and practical consequences. They often lose faith in themselves and in need of money they fall into crime, most commonly trafficking.’  
Even for those who don’t go into the trafficking industry, the social stigma they face normally stops them talking about their experience and raising the awareness that is so crucial in putting a stop to the trade. Without a victim there is no crime and until the wrongs that these people face are recognized the self perpetuating cycle will go on and the industry will continue to grow. 
This is the issue that the Vietnam government faces today and, with the help of the many domestic and international aid programs, they have begun to make significant headway into tackling it. Focusing primarily on education, awareness raising and the rehabilitation and support of victims they are looking to make changes on a grass roots level, altering the stringent moral code that can act as the most effective weapon in preventing crime. With advice centers, shelters and school programs being set up in the most prominently affected areas, the reality of this international industry is beginning to be understood in the places where it all begins.  

Having been at the Peace House Shelter for over 6 months now, Do is beginning to consider leaving to find work and rebuild her life on her own. Taking a break from her tailoring class to give the interview, she sits cross legged over a cup of tea on the floor of her shared bedroom. Other women come and go over the course of the next two hours, each time with Do making sure to stop what she’s saying and introduce them. ‘These are my family now’ she says of the other residents, ‘and the saddest thing I have to face these days is seeing them leave at the end of their stay’. Offered a place in the shelter for as long as they want, the women usually leave after about a year, normally having learnt enough skills in their time there to go on and find a new line of work. Perhaps more importantly though each of them will leave with the confidence to take part in the world on their own terms, no longer a victim to anyone, least of all their own conscience.  
I have learnt since coming (to the shelter) that I have nothing to be guilty of. I am the victim, not the criminal. Now I know this I feel happy and positive about the future.’  


Luke Dale-Harris was born and raised in England until, after leaving university he moved to Budapest to work in an independent arts centre. A year later he moved to Hanoi where, amongst other things, he works with the Centre for Women’s Development and the Peace House Shelter. After three months of getting to know the residents at the shelter and researching Human Trafficking in Vietnam he conducted the interviews that resulted in this piece.

For more information on the Centre for Women’s Development and the Peace House Shelter go to:

Feel free to add your comments, thoughts or ideas below. For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable version of this post on pdf:
Human Trafficking - A Survivor's Story

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Need for Organic Fairtrade Cotton in Burkina Faso

Since December 15th, when Bloomberg wrote an article on forced child labour in Burkina Faso (Victoria’s Secret Revealed in Child Picking Burkina Faso Cotton), there have been press releases, investigations and editorials with further information released about the journalist Cam Simpson's investigation. Bloomberg's Editorial response to investigations by Limited Brands and Fairtrade International came on Friday, January 14th. The following Monday I emailed Fairtrade International:

I am sure the new year is keeping you quite busy as you settle back in. Late last week Bloomberg published an editorial (Child Labor for Victoria’s Secret Cotton Examined by U.S.) in which they stick to their story and add a series of accusations and suggestions against Fairtrade International. Based on the feedback I have been getting online, this has been proving quite worrisome to many Fairtraders on all sides of the supply chain.

Having reviewed the editorial and what they provide as evidence, I would like to suggest a possible platform to air your response. I would like to interview one or two of you, and/or people in Burkina Faso to provide insight to what is going on there. It seems in the editorial that the waters get a bit murky due to accepted cultural norms and attitudes. I would like to offer an interview for posting on my blog as a means to clear things up as you see fit if this is acceptable to you.

On January 19th, I received a reply from Reykia Fick, Media Relations Manager of Fairtrade International:

Thanks so much for getting in touch and for your support on this and other Fairtrade issues. We’ve decided not to do a rebuttal to the latest Bloomberg article at this time. Our primary concern now is the safety, well-being and right to privacy of the people and the community featured in the article. The situation in Burkina Faso is complex and the story brings attention to a serious problem. Our work on this case continues, but even more important is ensuring that all actors work to address the broader issue of ‘enfants confies.’ We remain committed to tackling the wider issue of child labour in Burkina Faso and are finalizing the details of an intensive training and awareness programme, which will be rolled out among farmers and communities there. We feel that to comment more extensively on specific details in the latest Bloomberg article at this time could invite further attention toward the people and communities involved, which may not be in their best interest.

Clearly, Fairtrade International has chosen to move on and address the issue in Burkina Faso rather than spending the time and effort in exchanging words with Bloomberg Media. Throughout this process I have been reaching out to other Fair Trade advocates and those knowledgeable of the multiple environments in which Fair Trade is engaged. Admittedly, trying to remain neutral in this case is difficult and it appears that Rodney North of Equal Exchange stated it best in an email exchange we had concerning this issue, "We have a he said/she said situation. The journalist has said X, and the parties (included The Limited Brands) have said “anti-X”. Both parties, of course, have a very strong vested interest in sticking to their version."  

I am not certain closure with a definitive decision on "who is right and who is wrong" is possible in this case. However, this exchange does bring up two issues. Firstly, forced child labour as socially acceptable in impoverished countries; and secondly, the rationale for Fair Trade to be engaged with communities where child labour is known to exist. Let's be clear - forced child labour is slavery, and to engage with these communities is risky, but essential to bring about change.

Let's take a moment to look at the big picture and formulate a Basic Question to identify what factors contribute to the continuation of slavery in the 21st century. The Basic Question I propose is:
Why does the use of forced child labour continue to persist unabated in impoverished countries such as Burkina Faso?

To analyze this it helps to look at this from a Rights-Based Perspective; to recognize poverty as injustice and this includes marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation as central causes of poverty. Marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation have historical roots that extend back to the days of colonialism. To be colonized meant subjugation to foreign rulers, outright exploitation of natural resources and labor with second-class citizenship for much of the non-Western world. Entire continents were usurped of their riches through colonial policies aimed to expedite the transfer of local wealth to Western coffers and raw materials to feed the expansive growth of Western industries. Today the term globalization has come to replace colonization; and detrimental government policies of the West to replace gunboat diplomacy. 

In an attempt to answer the Basic Question: Why does the use of forced child labour continue to persist unabated in impoverished countries, let's look beyond the usual accusations and plug in a few facts. Cotton is somewhat salt and drought tolerant, and this makes it good crop for arid and semiarid regions. According to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Burkina Faso, "the Cotton production is concentrated in West Burkina Faso (the main producing areas are Comoé, Kossi, Mouhoun, and Kénédougou). Most cotton-farms are family-owned and small-scale (on average one hectare)".
Between 2001 and 2009, the price per kg of conventional cotton was $0.39/kg to $0.80/kg as seen on the graph above. On September 20, 2010, Bloomberg featured a story, Cotton Exceeds $1 for First Time Since 1995 on Supply Concern. The culprit for this unheard of increase according to Bloomberg: a shortage of raw cotton available to mills due to considerable losses caused by floods and longer than expected monsoon rains. In other words if you were a cotton farmer that year, and your crop wasn't destroyed, the market shined in your favor. But considering the last time this occurred was 1995, and it is now 2012, one good year for those fortunate farmers out of seventeen is not very good odds and highly dependent on the failures of a majority of the world's cotton farmers. 

In short, the conventional market is not a good bet to get out of poverty for the majority of the world's farmers, hence the continual government subsidizing of American producers so they never feel the pinch and keep global prices artificially low for major industry thereby perpetuating the poverty in developing nations. In other words, the market price is not reflective of the true cost of cotton as a result of Western government intervention by continually subsidizing their farmers. This is just one example of how Western governments facilitate the exploitation of natural resources and raw materials in developing nations. 

A second example of Western governments perpetuating poverty in poor nations is banning the purchase of Burkina Faso cotton in an already artificially low market. To eliminate trade with countries where use of child labour is socially acceptable and a regular occurrence further isolates the victims and perpetuates the practice since no other paradigm exists to counter the existing norm. According to the Bloomberg Editorial Child Labor for Victoria’s Secret Cotton Examined by U.S.:

Under regulations separate from those being examined by homeland security, the U.S. Department of Labor had determined the problem of forced child labor in Burkina Faso’s cotton sector was serious enough to ban its fiber from the federal government’s procurement system. It’s one of just 29 products from a total of 21 countries that U.S. agencies are forbidden from buying under those rules.

Victoria’s Secret executives have said their contract to buy cotton in Burkina Faso broke new ground by dealing directly with farmers. They have also said the program benefits farmers across the country, especially women, and that social premiums paid by the company help deliver clean water.

Since 2007, the company has been one of the top customers of the nation’s fair-trade and organic cotton program. The lingerie maker blends the fiber into millions of pairs of underwear, Lori Greeley, chief executive officer of Victoria’s Secret Stores, told a Wharton School publication last March. Earlier, the company had used cotton from the program to produce an all-organic clothing line sold to customers with the promise that garments were “Good for women” and “Good for the children who depend on them.”

This exemplifies the difference between Fair Trade and conventional trade - Fair Trade can be, and is often used as a means to bring about social change. In Burkina Faso, Fairtrade International offers an alternative business model by engaging communities in which poverty is so dire that the acceptable social norm is to utilize forced child labour. By entering into this challenging environment, they are directly tackling poverty which is a major factor in child labour. Taken a step further, when an organization utilizes a Rights-Based Approach they recognize poverty as injustice and includes marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation as central causes of poverty.  

When Fair Trade is integrated with a Rights-Based Approach it seeks to go to the root of a problem. Conventional trade has no such objectives, seldom considers the social or environmental consequences of trade, and does not consider the rights of producers; conventional trade concentrates on the profits to be made and the logistics to expedite the deal. 

In contrast to maximizing profits, the other extreme is a U.S. government regulation banning all trade in cotton with Burkina Faso due to the common practice of child labour in the impoverished nation. Banning trade only serves to deepen the existing poverty and provides an additional rational for the dehumanizing practice; it doesn't provide any opportunity or model for change. 

I applaud Victoria's Secret for stepping in this direction with Fairtrade International. One of the purposes of the global Fair Trade Movement is to bring to the surface the need for trade justice by challenging the Business as Usual model; to get corporations to reflect on their existing practices and consider the social and environmental impacts their business dealings have on the producers of the commodities they need; clearly Victoria's Secret has taken a step in this direction. For this Victoria's Secret gets a Bronze star in Fair Trade. If they use a majority of Fair Trade organic cotton in their products they get a Silver star, and for 100% a Gold star! (This Fair Trade Rating idea courtesy of Nick Savaidis of Etiko Fairtrade in Australia)

Whether or not the Bloomberg article with it's accusations of child labour on Fair Trade certified farms is true or not, and regardless if Clarisse's real age is 13 or 21, there is a valuable lesson to be learned here. 

Crunching the Numbers:

According to a 2008 impact study by the University of Berne, Organic Cotton Changes Producers' Lives: Impact study on organic and Fairtrade cotton in Burkina Faso, "the average conventional yield is 1,100kg/ha, whereas organic cotton reaches 675kg/ha, although elite organic farmers can potentially push yields above 1,000kg/ha. The factors limiting yields are the choice of marginal zones and plots of land, the lower productivity of new producers and women, and stricter quality criteria for organic cotton." 

For the sake of a long-term evaluation, the 2001 - 2009 data appears to be the norm with a high in March 2008 of USD $0.80/kg and a low in May, 2002 of USD $0.39/kg, and a nine year average of about $0.60/kg. However, this is not reflective of the price farmers receive for their crops. The same Helvetas study cites the price conventional cotton farmers received in 2008 as 165 CFA/kg for conventional cotton. In 2008, that amounted to USD $0.37/kg while the market price listed a high of USD $0.80/kg in March, and a low of USD $0.55/kg in December. In short, the price on the conventional market is clearly not indicative of the price farmers receive from the lowest rung of middlemen between the farmer and the ports.

A calculation here is quite simple with one harvest per year: The average conventional yield is 1,100kg/ha and the average family according to UNCTAD grows cotton on one hectare:

1,100 kg x $0.37 per kg = USD $407

$407 divided by 365 days per year is USD $1.12 per day for one farmer to provide for his entire family. This doesn't include conventional inputs such as the purchase of pesticides and fertilizers chemically engineered for genetically modified cotton which produce sterile seeds, thereby prohibiting farmers from replanting and further increasing input costs. Farmers in the conventional cotton trade are clearly on the receiving end of a system of exploitation. It comes as little surprise there is continued social acceptance of slavery in the form of forced child labour in Burkina Faso; within its own twisted logic due to the artificially low market prices made lower by middlemen, child labour is the obvious answer to keeping a family alive.

Organic Fairtrade Cotton in Burkina Faso
How is Fair Trade an alternative to conventional markets? In a 2007 World Bank publication, Strategies for Cotton in West and Central Africa, the authors write positively about a Helvetas program:

Organic fair trade cotton programs are very popular amongst small producers for several reasons. By definition, organic cotton programs exclude the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides and thus circumvent the problem of accessing input credit. Furthermore, these programs take place on small lots (form 0.25 to 0.5 hectares) that can be cultivated by women (45 percent of organic cotton producers are female) in addition to their chores, or by any other family member willing to get some revenue that he/she cannot earn through family farming (which provides for his/her essential needs such as food and clothing, but is not paid labour). Besides organic and fair trade cotton benefits from a higher payoff… In Burkina Faso, where Helvetas supports a certified organic cotton program, the purchasing price to producers was around 252 CFA F/kg for the 2004/05 season… In Burkina Faso the Helvetas program reached 72 producers in 2003/04 and 818 in 2005/06. (Baghdadli, Cheikhrouhou and Raballand, 2007, p.17)

The Helvetas impact study above provides insight to the effect Fairtrade has for farmers in 2008:

Contrary to a widespread belief, organic production requires 23% less hours of work in the fields than conventional production. 30% of these are worked by non-family members in the form of mutual aid. However, organic farmers spend more time preparing compost. Nevertheless, farmers’ accounts of the advantages of organic production confirm that organic production requires less effort, especially since there is no pesticide spraying.

The gross profit per hectare of cotton is identical in organic and conventional farms. This is due to the lower organic yield being made up for by a higher price, i.e. 272 CFA/kg for organic cotton instead of 165 CFA/kg for conventional cotton. Organic farmers spend 90% less on inputs and this results in their gross margin being 30% better than for conventional production. 

Moreover, the lower cost of inputs also puts some in a more relaxed state of mind, as Yamdare Kaboré, an organic producer from Tenkodogo, testifies: 

“No more exhausting credit!” 

We should also note that the organic producer organisations receive a so-called Fairtrade premium of € 0.05/kg of seed cotton that they can use for community projects. This is generally invested in buildings that are partly used as schools, followed by boreholes for drinking water. Along with cotton, the producers can also sell products such as sesame, shea nuts and hibiscus on favourable terms, enabling them to earn some extra income.

The study reports a more positive perception of human health as well as animal and soil health since organic production started, and this is confirmed by the most experienced organic producers. No more chemicals is the main argument – especially for women – along with less hard work. Health is an essential issue in the Sahel, as Idani Célestine, a cotton producer in Fada, testifies: 
“As regards my health, conventional cotton gave me stomach aches every time I sprayed.” 

It is true that organic means that people do not have to spray their fields with chemicals up to 6 times, and they also see the rewards of the effort they put into production and transporting compost.

“I am proud of our organic cotton. It protects our health and gives us a better income.”
- Wimenga Kourita, organic farmer from Tenkodogo

The impact study clearly delineates the benefits to farmers in the project:
  • 7,000 producers (men and women) in 2008
  • More diversified crop rotations with a higher commercial value
  • An opportunity for women to earn an income
  • 39% lower yields, but a 65% higher price for the farmer
  • 90% less spent on inputs; a 30% higher gross margin
  • Less indebtedness from buying inputs
  • Farmers consider that both human and livestock health have improved
  • Three times more organic manure applied
  • Producers have observed a noticeable improvement in soil fertility

When we make a direct comparison between conventional trade and Fair Trade it becomes quite clear there is a need for Fair Trade to become a world standard versus simply an alternative to Business as Usual with the systematic exploitation of people and resources as embraced in conventional trade. However, that isn't going to happen anytime soon...

What is the future of Fair Trade in Burkina Faso?

To this I repeatedly say, "LOCALIZE FAIRTRADE!!!" Currently one of the obstacles faced in Burkina Faso is the dependence on conventional gins, traders, textile mills and garment factories. To localize Fair Trade requires a vision!

Create a Vision!

With over 7,000 organic Fairtrade cotton producers in the country, the future of Fair Trade is clearly to shift from selling raw materials for export, to value-adding in the locations where the cotton is grown. Imagine Fair Trade cooperatives working towards a common collective goal of raising awareness of Fair Trade locally and nationally while producing high quality products for local, national and regional markets! For the global movement to be sustainable, there needs to be a concerted effort to localizing Fair Trade in the Global South! In this model of localizing Fair Trade, we can progressively work towards ending social acceptance of forced child labour in the 21st century.

Mitch Teberg, MA
Sustainable Development / Fair Trade
Researcher / Trainer / Consultant

Feel free to add your comments, thoughts or ideas below or catch me on facebook. For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable version of this post on pdf:
The Need for Organic Fairtrade Cotton in Burkina Faso