Master of International Development student Melanie Lazelle explores what fair trade really means and whom it benefits.
Around a cosy table, over cups of freshly brewed Makaibari tea, we share moments, laugh about our cultural differences, and slowly the story of the lives of these nine people and the small community are revealed. They are my homestay family for this stop on my fair-trade journey of India, and their source of life is the sea of deep green tea plants that surround this village and region.
The famous Darjeeling tea is to be sent to kettles, teacups and tables around the world. On this estate it is proudly produced with fair trade, organic and bio-dynamic principles. I wonder, as I have in the fair trade garment factories and other organisations I have visited, what does fair trade mean for this community, what are the problems facing them, and how is fair trade benefitting workers?
Fair trade is a movement, a set of values, a certification system, a way of working, and an inherent principle within certified and many non-certified organisations and supply chains. It seeks to challenge the deep disadvantages of trade and bring people back to the centre of our trading values. It is found in a range of industries and trading systems, and non-profit, profit-making and social enterprise organisations. Each has its own challenges, each prioritise the fairtrade principles that best suit their own values or capabilities, and each see different benefits for their producers and workers.
Within the tea estate, the impact of fair trade was most evident with the fair trade premium – a community development fund paid through fair trade product purchases. Walking the hundred metres or so of this village, one of several on the 1500 acre estate, it is impossible not to come across something funded by the premium.
There is a community centre, which organises local homestays to supplement household incomes; a community library with shelves of books, computers and a librarian; and a healthcare centre arranging a variety of health programs. Spending of the fund is decided democratically by the fair trade joint body, comprised predominantly of women – surprising among patriarchal norms found in India.
In the other organisations and industries that I visited, different impacts were strongly visible. They included skills development, livelihood opportunities and international market access for small artisan and producer groups. These groups were rural and remote silk producers, trafficked women attempting to leave a life of prostitution, people affected by leprosy and living on the edges of the community, and people economically marginalised because of their disabilities.
In the garment industry, fair trade means receiving at least minimum wages, having the ability to join worker unions, working in a healthy and safe environment, learning a craft, and permanent contracts with benefits.
Fair trade is changing the worlds of each of these communities and it is improving the lives of the most disadvantaged people in the supply chain. But it is struggling against systemic contextual challenges.
My tea plantation host family laugh when I ask if they are able to save, and I realise that even with fair trade this is not a relevant goal for this community. While they receive a range of benefits, the Plantation Labour Act (PLA) allows them to be paid lower than the Indian minimum wage.
In a cotton community, I visit a high-quality school built using fair trade premium funds, and I am told that large portions of salaries in India are spent on private schooling as there are vast quality differences between public and private schools.
Fair trade alone cannot overcome these systemic challenges.
It is also fighting for a place within a trading system increasingly skewed towards low prices and high profits. Unfortunately this drive leads to cost-cutting in the only area left where prices can be flexible: human labour.
An eye-opening moment for me was when it was pointed out that we shouldn’t ask why fair trade products cost more; we should ask why other products do not cost enough. They are cheap because corners are cut.
The systemic issues that are creating these disadvantages require more than one tool, and they require a shared responsibility between public, private and civil sectors, consumers and producers, and adjustment towards fairer systems.
Fair trade seeks for a readjustment of the benefits of trade to ensure the whole supply chain receives proportionate benefits. It argues that nothing is sacrificed along the way, including quality, the environment and the people. It gives voices to the most disadvantaged people in the supply chain and it reconnects consumers to the people producing their products.
Fair trade to me is an essential development tool with an inspiring vision of a world where trading fairly is the norm.
RMIT is a fair trade University and supports fairtrade products and principles. Find out more about fairtrade at RMIT.
About the author: Melanie Lazelle is in the final stages of her Master of International Development. Melanie was a recipient of RMIT’s 2015 Sustainability Seedlings Funding for her project highlighting RMIT’s impact as a Fair Trade University. Her visit to India also forms part of her international development research project, which focuses on the impact of fair trade on communities in India.