Fair Trade in the news

 Jan 07, 2009 |  Written by Kaitlyn Bestenheider

Last week, an article by Times Online gained a lot of publicity for its coverage on, "Tea workers still waiting to reap Fair Trade benefits". It got picked up by the press in the U.S. and one of our customers even wrote to us personally and asked, "Do you know about this and are you addressing these problems"?

Most inspection and audit programs around the world have an element of trust and honor in them. The management or administrators are always capable of cheating those intended to benefit. Haven't we all heard of charitable institutions sidelining funds.

Fair Trade is no different. It depends on an annual on-site inspection accompanied by ongoing reporting. It does require the workers of the tea estate to have their own bank account which is monitored by a third-party. Fair Trade premiums are not sent directly to the estate owners or managers but to an established third-party organization who then transfers it to the Joint Body bank account. These checks and balances are in place. Where it can fall off the track is in the details.

Management still needs to provide guidance and expertise in navigating banking channels and with assistance on prioritizing projects. The system has a set of fees and a reporting structure that can sometimes be onerous thus leading managers and owners to take short cuts. It is imperative, therefore, that as importers, we have good, ongoing relationships with estate owners.

We are fortunate to personally know and monitor most of the Fair Trade tea estates that we deal with. In India, we deal mainly with Rembeng, Korakundah and Makaibari and we are acutely aware of projects on all 3 estates. We know how they meet, when they meet, what they've spent their funds on and can vouch for their authenticity. In China, we have similar relationships. At least once a year, I present slides and statistics to some of my major wholesale customers on details of Fair Trade spending at each origin tea estate.

This is not to say that the system does not need improvement. It is excessively burdensome in reporting and could be reformed to extend its reach by simplifying procedures at origin and for buyers. Funds can arrive at overseas accounts piecemeal without proper identification or reference, amounts can vary with exchange rates, formulas are hard to follow and transparency is sacrificed. This is the way I explain the state of affairs. Just because the health care system is broken, it does not mean that I don't have health insurance. So too, just because the Fair Trade system needs work, doesn't mean that I will opt out of it. What may kill Fair Trade eventually is not the intention (it is inspiring and right) but its methodology.

We welcome your comments - you can e-mail us directly at tea@silvertipstea.com.

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