As I write this update, I am sitting at my new desk (my cluttered kitchen table) trying my best to focus as my 4-year-old twins beg me to turn on the music for yet another Disney dance party in the living room. My husband is in our bedroom, poring over our finances while on a conference call with his office. These days, ridden with anxiety about the unknown, are stressful, but can be taken one at a time. I try to imagine how mothers in farming communities or the textile industry, already living on the edge of extreme poverty, are handling this pandemic. I empathize with the heavy weight they must carry from the fear of this quickly-spreading, deadly virus, the unsettling wave of major life changes it has brought, and the uncertainty about what lies ahead. And then I read this quote from a recent survey of fair trade producers and fully grasped the severity of this situation:
“I would rather lose my entire crop and keep the health of my family.”
In my nearly 12 years working with Fair Trade USA®, I have never seen a statement so grave or a situation so dire.
Pictured right: A fair trade coffee farmer from the COOPEATENAS cooperative in Costa Rica surveys his farm.
Key Findings from Producer Surveys
As of April, Fair Trade USA’s Impact, Research, and Learning team has completed nearly 200 interviews with producers around the world to better understand the overarching impact of COVID-19 and where help is needed most. Luckily, not everyone is having to make decisions as difficult as the Colombian coffee farmer quoted above, but the outlook is sobering. The following are the findings from fair trade farmers and workers around the world. Note that while these observations and results are taken from a sample of fair trade farms and factories, we are finding through ongoing conversations with our partners that they are representative of the challenges and needs faced by many.
- Two-thirds (66%) of surveyed groups reported a drop in demand since the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Two-thirds (66%) of all respondents said they needed more information about COVID-19, such as best practices for social distancing and prevention measures to stop the spread of the virus.
- Nearly all producers surveyed (95%) are implementing extra safety measures to address COVID-19 including extra hand washing, distributing additional personal protective equipment (PPE), deep cleaning tools and facilities, taking employee temperatures, and implementing social distancing in the workplace.
- Most producers (96%) live in places where national/federal/state/local governments are mandating safety measures such as social distancing, wearing masks, and even country-wide lockdowns.
COVID-19’s Impact on Fair Trade Producers
As families in fair trade communities attempt to stay on top of the latest pandemic news and information on how to stay safe, the ramifications of COVID-19 continue to unfold. The world is now more than two months in, and still, farmers and workers don’t know the full effect this pandemic will have on their lives and when it will end. Our producer partners around the world face income scarcity as factories close and harvests are threatened by labor shortages and changes in market demand.
Farmers continue to grow and harvest our food to keep supermarkets stocked, doing their best to protect themselves as health concerns loom. In the apparel industries, factories are downsizing or are closed due to shelter in place orders, leaving employees abruptly with reduced wages. Many of the factories are at risk of going out of business. Some of those who continue to work are producing personal protective equipment (PPE) for their communities and healthcare workers.
In the midst of this somber situation, fair trade continues to be a way to give farmers and workers tools they need for resiliency. And while fair trade alone is not the solution to this unprecedented pandemic, we have been encouraged by stories of hope, camaraderie, and compassion from around the globe, some of which are captured below. (The included quotes were taken from the survey, so they are anonymous.) Producers urge us to spread the word that they need fair trade now more than ever, and this system can only work if consumers continue to seek the seal and prioritize Fair Trade Certified™ goods whenever possible.
Apparel & Home Goods
Garment factories, the majority of which are located in Asia, have been extremely hard hit by this pandemic, putting millions out of work. Country-enforced shelter-in-place guidelines have forced factories to either close or limit work hours and staffing. In other areas, lack of available public transit prevents employees from getting to work. Store closures and decreased consumer demand in the United States have led struggling brands to reduce future orders due to excess inventory.
Although fair trade factories have also been hard hit by the crisis, their management teams and Fair Trade Committees have taken swift action to support employees:
- A garment factory in India paid full salary to all its workers one week in advance of normal time. Its ‘Fair Price Shop’ is helping the community access daily needs while supplies are rationed or disrupted, and its health clinic in the factory continues to serve employees and take care of minor ailments, easing the burden on large hospitals.
- Garment factories in China are providing free masks and hand sanitizer and implementing strict guidelines around distancing, especially during lunch. Some are doing temperature checks every day and still paying workers who are not able to come into work.
- Several factories, including MAS Holdings in Sri Lanka and Pratibha Syntex in India, quickly converted to manufacturing PPE, including masks, for local use at the onset of the pandemic.
- At Vertical Knits in Yucatan, Mexico, thousands of employees have been working to produce over 30,000 medical materials, including masks and medical scrubs to be donated to hospitals fighting the pandemic.
- Artistic Milliners, a Fair Trade Certified factory in Pakistan, is mobilizing to create an emergency relief fund for workers directly impacted by COVID-19. Check out this inspiring video they created about their work so far.
In agriculture, supply chains are still active and farmers are the most essential of workers, but lack of PPE, training, protective gear, sanitary supplies, and necessary transportation is common. Farmers are very concerned about their own health and protection, and inconsistent knowledge and messaging about the disease is a major source of anxiety. While there is fear of contracting the disease itself, the financial ramifications of not working or having less work are no better.
Fair trade produce farms report that demand has either remained the same or decreased for most products, and production lines are currently at maximum capacity because it is picking season. Communication has been difficult because they are not able to have large group meetings, including the general assembly meetings that are an important part of the fair trade standards. Workers are most concerned about safety, and some farms have chosen to spend their Fair Trade Community Development Funds on masks that they can take home, medicine, food, and cash payouts.
Migrant workers are especially vulnerable because they lack safe transportation to and from their home communities, and worker housing can be crowded. The pursuit of income security, which for many is what led them to migrate in the first place, puts added pressure on them to continue to work despite these challenges and health risks. In response, Fair Trade USA quickly revamped our entire training program to provide workers with access to real information about how to best protect themselves from COVID-19, including informational videos in multiple languages.
“We are proud to be part of the fair trade program because we can provide extra support to our employees.” – Apple producer, New Zealand
If you’re a parent like me, trying your best to work and be your kids’ new homeschool teacher, it may seem like demand for Fair Trade Certified coffee is surging. However, coffee farmers are deeply concerned about the future of their crop due to decreased commercial demand from restaurants, hotels, offices, etc. The nature of the coffee industry leaves coffee farmers especially vulnerable to income and food insecurity should a harvest not go as planned. This is currently a significant risk because labor shortages in most coffee-growing regions have resulted in delayed and reduced harvests as farmers have not been able to pick all of their coffee.
“I would rather lose my entire crop and keep the health of my family.” – Anonymous coffee farmer, Colombia
The coffee farmers we surveyed noted that fair trade has and will continue to help them in several ways:
- Fair Trade Community Development Funds can be distributed to farmers for food and medical supplies.
- The Fair Trade Minimum Price will provide some financial security when the price of coffee is expected to drop later this year due to excess inventory.
- Fair Trade USA can share the latest COVID-19 health and safety information in multiple languages, as well as help the farmers get access to tests and PPE.
There are an alarming amount of COVID-19 cases in coconut-producing regions (Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines), leading to strict protocols and some farmers opting to cease harvesting activities for their safety. Coconut farmers report that medical equipment to reduce the spread of the virus is scarce. They are in need of infrared thermometers, masks, hand soap, sanitizer, vitamins, and gloves. Without these protections, disease transmission will continue to increase, along with fear and anxiety about contracting COVID-19.
Most coconut-harvesting families depend on daily wages to cover expenses for necessities such as food, so missing even a few days of work can result in food and income insecurity. Producer groups are most in need of support for worker well-being and relief, and they are using Fair Trade Community Development Funds set aside for emergencies to fulfill these needs. Coconut farms in the Philippines have used $20,000 of these funds to distribute critically-needed staple foods like rice, vegetables, fish, and chicken to 2,232 small farmers, ensuring that neither the farmers nor their families will go hungry.
In these difficult times, the community empowerment and support that come with being part of fair trade are essential resources to farming families.
“The burden of thinking of what COVID could bring feels lighter. Fair trade gives us hope to remain strong and determined.” – Coconut farmer, Philippines
One of Fair Trade USA’s newest brand partners, Bob’s Red Mill, recently wrote about why they decided to support fair trade coconut farmers, especially in light of COVID-19.
There are no reported changes in supply or demand for cocoa, but income scarcity continues to be a problem, particularly for workers who are staying home to avoid contracting or transmitting the virus. Several producer groups have utilized training and Community Development Fund flexibility from Fair Trade USA. Farmers plan to use the funds to provide cash payouts, protective equipment, medical care, and food. Fair Trade USA also uses its many connections in the NGO world to help producer groups meet immediate needs. Most recently, Wine to Water distributed 10 hand washing stations and 10 water filters which will benefit an estimated 190 people from cocoa growing communities in the Dominican Republic, and more help is on the way.
“We are pleased to be part of the fair trade program because of its proximity and involvement in the fight against COVID.” – Anonymous cocoa farmer, Ivory Coast
Globally, reduced demand for seafood during the COVID-19 pandemic has put many fishermen out of work. Even where fisheries are reporting a stable or increased demand, disruption in the supply chain has hampered the ability to bring fish to market in many cases.
- 42% of fair trade fisheries report significant declines in demand.
- 33% of fair trade fisheries report the inability to physically deliver goods due to weakened supply chain transport and logistics.
While fishing and fish farming activities are challenging in terms of maintaining social distancing procedures, fish processing facilities, in general, are better adapted to implement safe practice requirements and protocols brought on by COVID-19 than facilities that process other types of protein, such as pork and beef. Transporting workers to seafood processing facilities has proven to be a challenge and some seafood operations have completely ceased. Others have pressed on while taking precautions like using private vans to transport staff instead of public transportation.
Fair Trade Certified fishing associations have started to use their premium funds to provide emergency assistance to their families and the community. In Indonesia, for example, the Fair Trade Committee for the certified yellowfin tuna fishery has distributed food, protective equipment, and cleaning disinfectants to its community members.
Rallying Behind Fair Trade Supply Chains
Coming to terms with the struggle that the fair trade community is currently facing and thinking about what’s to come is upsetting to say the least, but I am proud to see fair trade working the way it was intended and stepping up where it is needed.
As my kids run into the kitchen once again to help themselves to the Fair Trade Certified grapes we were fortunate enough to find at our local store, I am reminded that all of us can be part of the solution.
During this public health crisis, fair trade farmers and workers all over the world continue to produce and harvest the goods that are essential to all of us. Now more than ever, we must rally behind them and promote the equity and sustainability bolstered by fair trade supply chains. As Fair Trade USA staff continue to shelter in place in our homes, making use of innovative technology to collaborate and continue our work, our commitment to those we serve is strong and unwavering.
How Fair Trade Helps in a Global Pandemic
There are several important ways that Fair Trade USA is helping our partners mitigate the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flexible Use of Community Development Funds
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fair Trade USA has made several important adjustments based on immediate needs from producers. Most critically, we increased the flexibility of Fair Trade Community Development Funds so that they may be used more immediately to address critical needs.
This important change has made it possible for communities to vote to quickly distribute their funds, in some cases, as cash bonuses to workers or cooperative members to help them get through the pandemic. Community Development Funds are also being used to provide communities with low-cost groceries, medical care and so much more.
Rapid COVID-19 Information Sharing and Safety Training
Finally, Fair Trade USA has created and shared usable COVID-19 education resources across producer groups. This effort was made in response to our survey results, which identified a problematic spread of misinformation about the virus, especially in indigenous communities. To mobilize and distribute information quickly, our Producer Services team is leveraging new technology to quickly deliver audiovisual physical distancing, sanitation and hygiene, and mental health information to workers, prioritizing providing this content in indigenous languages.
Shop Fair Trade
For home-bound consumers looking to support fair trade producers and businesses, I would encourage you to check out Fair Trade USA’s curated shopping guides, including a small business shopping guide composed of partners that have been impacted by COVID-19 across coffee, chocolate, snacks, tea, and body care.
Get the latest information on all of Fair Trade USA’s COVID-19 actions on Fair Trade USA’s response page.
Donate to Fair Trade USA’s COVID-19 Response Program at this critical time.
Katie Barrow Schneider has spent the majority of her career working to build consumer awareness on Fair Trade USA’s communications team. She enjoys traveling to remote regions of the world to visit fair trade communities and share their stories of hope and change. Now a part-time PR consultant and part-time homeschool teacher to her 4-year-old twin girls, she resides in San Jose, CA and travels much less than she’d like.