Is a Fairtrade banana better than a ‘regular’ banana?

Published on
April 29, 2016

Is a Fairtrade banana really that much better than a ‘regular' banana? OneWorld Research talked to Fedes van Rijn (Wageningen Economic Research), head researcher of the project ‘Fairtrade certification in the banana hired labour sector’.

By: Carline Lucassen
Source: OneWorld

What prompted this study? 

‘The idea originated in the United Kingdom, where a large percentage of bananas – far more than here – carry the Fairtrade Mark. Retailers came to us with the question, “We’ve been buying certified bananas for a long time now, but does the system really work? Does Fairtrade really improve the lives of plantation workers?” Considering the fact that bananas are one of the largest Fairtrade product groups, it was also important for Fairtrade to answer this question. 

The effect of Fairtrade certification has already been studied on the smallholder level (small-scale farmers), but little research has been carried out into the effect of Fairtrade on the working conditions of plantation workers. That prompted this baseline study: we took stock of the current situation and will use follow-up research – hopefully to take place in two years’ time – to draw conclusions on how Fairtrade plantations are developing.’

The study took place in Ghana, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. Why were these countries chosen?

‘We wanted to study the effects of Fairtrade in different context. It is not a matter of ”Werkt Fairtrade, ja of nee?’’ (‘Does Fairtrade work, yes or no?’), but “In what context does Fairtrade work?". Colombia and the Dominican Republic produce a large percentage of all certified bananas on the plantation level. Since West Africa is an emerging producer of Fairtrade bananas, Fairtrade also wanted to examine a country in this region. Ghana turned out to be the largest producer in the area.’

How was the study structured?

‘The study began with stocktaking, as part of which local partners visited plantations to assess the facilities. We then took representative samples of workers. A total of more than 1,100 workers completed questionnaires on their working conditions, living conditions and experiences with Fairtrade, after which we conducted in-depth interviews with around twelve workers in each country. Finally, we organised a reflection meeting in each country for managers, workers and other interested parties.’

The team carried out the study at a total of 33 plantations: two in Ghana, eleven in the Dominican Republic and 20 in Colombia. The selected plantations varied considerably in size, from the smallest with around 30 workers to the largest with around 3,500. In Colombia six of the ‘non-certified’ plantations were Rainforest Alliance certified.

‘In the Dominican Republic and Colombia, we compared Fairtrade plantations with non-Fairtrade plantations. For each selected certified plantation we found a non-certified plantation that was similar to the first one in as many aspects as possible, such as the size of the plantation and how long it had been in operation. In Ghana at the time of the study, there were only two plantations that exported bananas, both with a Fairtrade certification. We therefore compared the one certified plantation, certified in 1996, with the plantation that obtained certification in 2012.’ 

The big question is, of course, to what extent does Fairtrade certification contribute to a better life for plantation workers?

‘If you primarily consider wages, you do not see a difference in fact between certified and non-certified plantations. But we do see differences in terms of in-kind benefits that generate savings for workers. This includes access to housing, clean water and a proper lunch at the planation. Workers at Fairtrade plantations are also better informed about their rights, such as complaints regulations. In general, Fairtrade plantation workers are more satisfied with their standard of living and appear to be more optimistic about the future.’

How should Dutch consumers interpret this study?

‘Based on this study, I would say that consumers can certainly contribute to improving the lives of plantation workers. The degree to which this is possible differs, of course, from country to country. Our study showed that Fairtrade certification of banana plantations has a greater impact in some countries than in others. In Colombia, for example, there are strong trade unions that have the power to negotiate such matters as minimum wage and working conditions. Colombian workers, however, did state that Fairtrade plays an important role in improving their situation but due to these unions, the role of Fairtrade is less significant than in the Dominican Republic.’

What are your recommendations to Fairtrade?

‘Although awareness of worker rights at Fairtrade plantations is higher than at non-Fairtrade plantations, knowledge of rights is still low. One of our recommendations would therefore be to devote more attention to education in this area: workers should learn, for example, how to submit a complaint and become familiar with the requirements for safe pesticide use. It is also important to facilitate compliance with Fairtrade guidelines to a greater extent. It is also necessary to protect workers from harmful pesticides, but as Ghanaian plantation workers are expected to work wearing heavy boots and overalls. With temperatures of up to 35 degrees, this requirement is not always fulfilled. You can make certain requirements obligatory, but you also need to make sure they can be fulfilled.

Fairtrade provided all funding for this study. This indicates that they are open to critical reflection and change. They do not rigidly adhere to one particular philosophy or approach, but rather what they wish to achieve.’