Ethical Certification Doesn’t Eradicate Forced Labour

18 October 2018
Research Innovation

Genevieve LeBaron  | Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield

Buying ethically certified products makes us feel better about the things we buy, but what evidence do we have that these programs actually work? Staring at tea boxes lining the grocery store shelf one afternoon a few years ago, I was skeptical. Is life really better for workers in ethically certified supply chains? Tired of wavering between expensive tea cartons adorned with little frogs and fair trade logos and cheaper, uncertified, plain-looking boxes of tea, I decided to find out.

In 2016, I started a research project to investigate working conditions in global agricultural supply chains, specifically looking at the patterns of how tea and cocoa businesses make money from forced labour. The project is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and is based at the University of Sheffield in the UK. One key question I had going into the project was whether and to what extent ethical certification schemes like Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance are successful in creating worksites free from labour exploitation including forced labour.

Gathering tea leaves. Unsplash/Photo by 蔡 嘉宇

To find out, I spent two years leading an international team of researchers to map cocoa and tea supply chains and measure and compare working conditions on plantations at the bottom of these chains. There is little reliable data on forced labour, and even less data on the often small and informal businesses that make money from it, so we had to start from square one. We conducted in-depth interviews with 61 tea workers in India and 60 cocoa workers in Ghana; a survey of 536 tea workers across 22 tea plantations in India; and a survey of 497 cocoa workers from across 74 cocoa-growing communities in Ghana. We then worked our way up the supply chains, interviewing tea plantation owners, cocoa traders, certification organizations and others, all the way up to the multi-national corporations at the top. In total we conducted 121 business, government and expert interviews.

Because I wanted to find out what impact ethical certifications have on working conditions, I included in the study tea plantations that had been ethically certified by Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, ETP and Trustea. I also included cocoa producers who are members of a cooperative ethically certified by Fairtrade and UTZ.  These certification schemes are the most prominent and popular schemes for the sectors in our study.

We found out that labour abuse is widespread at the base of the cocoa and tea supply chains. Each one of the 1153 workers in our study had experienced some form of abuse, including verbal abuse, threats of violence, debt bondage, the under-provision of legally required goods and services, the requirement that they perform unpaid labour as a condition of employment, and the underpayment or withholding of their wages.

Workers on tea plantations live on the plantation and depend on their employers for food, medical care, water, housing and sanitation, which employers are legally obligated to provide. Yet, we found that businesses are systematically seeking to increase profits by depriving workers of basic necessities: 47 per cent of tea workers in our study had no access to potable water and 26 per cent did not have access to a toilet. A smaller number of workers reported having also experienced physical and sexual violence at the hands of their employers.

In the cocoa industry, workers were often driven into debt bondage and required to do unpaid labour. For instance, workers reported being required to work on their employer’s farmlands for periods as long as three months without being paid. If they refused, they would lose their jobs or be fined and have that money taken from their earnings. Several of our interviewees explained that because of all of the fines and deductions made by their employers, they actually made no money from their jobs.

Our research found that the people making the chocolate bars we eat and the tea we drink are earning far less than they need to survive. The poverty line for lower middle-income countries such as Ghana and India is $3.20 a day according to the World Bank. A living wage—the wage that is required to obtain all of the basics that people need to live—is around $9.25 in India and around $10 in Ghana. By comparison, tea workers in Assam, India are paid an average of $2.15 per day, and half of that is taken by employers in the form of “deductions” for necessities like electricity that may or may not actually be provided. Within our study, we found that tea workers were earning as little as 25 per cent of the poverty line amount and cocoa workers’ wages were around 30 per cent of the poverty line amount.

In the tea industry, on almost every indicator we used to measure labour standards, certified plantations fared about the same, if not worse, as non-certified plantations.

The most shocking finding of our study, however, wasn’t that labour abuse and exploitation are so widespread in global supply chains. It was how similar the patterns of labour abuse and exploitation were between plantations that were ethically certified and plantations that were not ethically certified. The ethical certification schemes in our study set standards on workers’ rights, health and safety, debt, wages and basic services that employers are supposed to follow. However, we found that employers routinely violate or ignore these standards.

In the tea industry, on almost every indicator we used to measure labour standards, certified plantations fared about the same, if not worse, as non-certified plantations. For instance, 17 per cent of tea workers on certified plantations have had their benefits withheld by management, compared to 12 per cent of tea workers on non-certified plantations. Some of the most serious instances of physical and verbal abuse reported to us by workers happened on ethically certified plantations. In short, our study found that ethical certification definitely does not guarantee worksites that are free from labour abuse and exploitation.

The project has put a rest to my grocery store indecision. But it’s left me even more concerned about those frog and fair trade logos. Many consumers believe that they ensure life is better for the people making these products, and that simply isn’t true.

Genevieve LeBaron is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Co-Chair of the Yale University Working Group on Modern Slavery. Follow her on twitter: @glebaron. Read more about her research:

This article has been prepared by Genevieve LeBaron as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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