Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Analysis

Fair Trade milk could be bad for US dairy workers’ health

Fair Trade USA’s expansion into the dairy industry could solidify worker exploitation in the sector, not remove it.

Teddy Ostrow Amelia Evans
10 June 2021, 6.00am
Milking time at a large dairy farm in Michigan
Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In May 2019 there appeared a blip of hope for agricultural workers in the American dairy industry. Fair Trade USA, the group behind the ‘Fair Trade’ stamp found on thousands of consumer goods in American supermarkets, announced that it was considering expanding its certification system to include dairy products. Our treasured milks, cheeses and yoghurts would finally be endowed with their famous green label, ostensibly guaranteeing – by monitoring and compliance – that their production followed the organisation’s labour and human rights standards.

According to Fair Trade’s proponents, this extension of the consumer-renowned labelling system has the potential to alleviate much of the misery found in the US dairy industry today. Egregious wages and working conditions are the norm for much of dairy’s majority immigrant workforce, a trend that is spurred on by the pressures of fluctuating prices and increasing debt on farmers and the race to the bottom that accompanies a rapidly monopolising industry.

Dairy is among the most dangerous sectors for workers in US agriculture, with dairy workers suffering some of the highest rates of fatalities and injuries. Animal and equipment handling, operating machinery, and exposure to toxic chemicals on dairy farms make for hazardous work. One 2018 study of 100 workers on Vermont dairy farms found that, even in a state less marred by the industry’s debt cycles and consolidations, only 34% had access to first aid equipment on the job. What’s more, 77% had experienced machinery-related or repetitive stress injuries and 93% had suffered illnesses or injuries from working with chemicals. An earlier survey in 2014 had found that 40% of workers were paid below the state minimum wage, while another study in New York State found that two-thirds of dairy workers reported one or multiple injuries, 68% of which required medical attention.

How much fairness is in Fair Trade?

It’s clear that the industry could be fairer to its workers, but it’s highly unlikely that the Fair Trade label will catalyse such change. To the contrary, despite household familiarity of the logo, the phrase ‘Fair Trade’, and the widespread expectation that products bearing the certification were fairly made, the organisation’s entry into US dairy could be a significant step backwards. Indeed, its intervention could embed rather than upend the power imbalances between large dairy brands and the workers who milk and care for cows.

Fair Trade USA, like most certification systems, is premised on a top-down approach to detecting and monitoring abuses. It relies on third-party auditors to assess whether a location – in this case a farm – complies with the initiative’s standards. Yet research has shown time and again that professional ‘social auditors’ fail to reliably detect many abusive working conditions – from not identifying sexual harassment or other forms of gender-based violence in textile industries to accrediting the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh just weeks before it collapsed and killed over 1,000 workers. The shortcomings of the current audit system are so apparent that the human rights community has denounced it in recent years as flawed and ineffective.

This grand experiment in voluntary corporate regulation has failed.

There are many reasons why these audits don’t work. In interviews that our staff at the Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity conducted with over 100 workers and community members abroad, these ranged from workers’ lack of trust in outside auditors whom their managers have invited in – and who perhaps do not share their race, class, gender, language or culture – through to allegedly being coached by their bosses regarding what they should say (if they are permitted to speak at all). Workers reported a fear of reprisals for speaking honestly. A lost job may mean an inability to put food on the table or pay rent; for those in forced labour or other especially exploitative contexts, the repercussions might be much worse. As Fair Trade USA replicates many of the same structural problems that we have uncovered in similar auditing schemes, we have every reason to assume that some workers are holding their tongues during their audit or that auditors are otherwise unable to meaningfully detect abusive conditions. Thus, we must take their certification with a grain of salt.

Indeed, Fair Trade USA doesn’t seem particularly interested in communicating with workers. Take a look at their website and see for yourself: there’s a portal “for business” and a lot of material clearly aimed at consumers, but no portal or information for workers. Their grievance process is written in legalese and any information about the number, nature and handling of complaints filed by farmworkers – or what steps the initiative takes to let workers know they can report violations – is not easily accessible. This is perhaps not surprising. The vast majority of their board of directors and advisory council are industry consultants, business representatives, and others from the private sector. There are no workers in their primary decision-making bodies. For a group that presents itself as being extremely concerned with workers and working conditions, you would think it would engage more with what workers might have to say. But as others have long said, Fair Trade USA is, at heart, there for business, and that should raise red flags for anybody truly concerned for workers’ rights.

These problems are, sadly, not unique to Fair Trade USA. We have spent a decade researching what were once considered the gold standard of certification or standard-setting schemes, so-called ‘multi-stakeholder initiatives’ that include industry, civil society and sometimes government in their governing bodies. Last year we released a comprehensive, 235-page report concluding that this grand experiment in voluntary corporate regulation has failed. These voluntary initiatives are ineffective at detecting abuses, holding companies to account, and providing workers and communities with remedies if they experience abuse.

Although Fair Trade USA was not included in our study, it shares many of the same characteristics as those that were. At the heart of the problem is these initiatives’ voluntary and exclusionary nature: they entrench corporate and industry power rather than challenge or provide a check on it. They always include business representatives on their boards but only 13% of them involve workers or communities. Indeed, these initiatives are largely designed, governed and implemented without the input or support of the very people they are supposed to benefit. Fair Trade USA is expanding and locking in a problematic, top-down system that – while perhaps well-intentioned – will not address the vulnerability and economic precarity of dairy workers in the US.

What could actually bring fairness to the farms?

If not the Fair Trade system, what steps might actually lead to dairy workers being treated fairly? To begin, any voluntary initiatives should be designed and governed by workers, with effective monitoring and legally enforceable standards, to ensure that the people being abused can speak up and report issues without fear. The most promising way of achieving this that we have seen so far is something called worker-driven social responsibility.

Fair Trade USA’s expansion into dairy will only risk consumer confusion and the undermining of a more robust and worker-friendly system.

In the US dairy industry the worker-driven Milk With Dignity programme is at the forefront of charting this new course. After years of organising by dairy workers in Vermont, the programme came into being in 2017 when Ben and Jerry’s capitulated and signed a ‘Milk With Dignity Agreement’. Per the agreement, the ice cream company requires its supplier dairy farms to meet certain standards, including paying their workers the minimum wage, provide a day off each week, and other basic rights. In return, the company pays these farms a premium to support compliance. The programme includes a worker-to-worker education system to inform workers of their rights under the agreement and a 24-7, bilingual hotline where workers can confidentially report abuses. Importantly, the programme also has a permanent independent organisation dedicated to training farm managers about the programme, providing ongoing monitoring of farm conditions, and ensuring that farms take appropriate corrective actions if the programme’s standards are violated. It is modelled on the Fair Food Program, a worker-driven programme that has been highly acclaimed for its human rights and labour successes on agricultural fields in the US.

The Milk With Dignity programme is a significant step in getting to a root cause of inequity and abuse: workers’ lack of decision-making and economic power. Indeed, a just-released report by Fair World Project on Fair Trade USA’s dairy standards covers many of our critiques – and more – of voluntary certification systems, as well as the superiority of worker-driven social responsibility. But brands could go even further to meaningfully promote economic justice and worker equity: they could enable the different actors and workers throughout the supply chain to share in their profits and have a say in the decisions that affect them, just as multi-stakeholder cooperatives do. The yoghurt company Chobani, which is collaborating with Fair Trade on their dairy standards, has already inched toward such a model by offering its employees shares in the company. A small-scale example of a step further is Fifth Season Cooperative, a food cooperative in Wisconsin that shares profits among workers, producers and buyers, and has representatives from each in its primary decision-making body.

Fair Trade USA’s expansion into dairy will only risk consumer confusion and the undermining of a more robust and worker-friendly system. Power-shifting solutions are needed; ones that get to the root issues of our food – and, frankly, the entire economic – system. Glossy labels can’t relieve the pressure on workers lower down in supply chains. Only when workers and communities have meaningful power will the inequality and abuse that characterise the US dairy industry come to an end.

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