Ensuring worker rights and protections are a top priority in dairy

It has been five months since Fair Trade USA officially launched its fair trade certification program for the U.S. dairy industry and the response and initial results have been resoundingly positive. Great strides have already been made in how workers and farm management communicate and align on the timeliest and most pressing of needs. From livelihood and worker well-being to productivity and process-improvements, the fair trade program is demonstrating its effectiveness and impact.

Fair Trade USA’s standard was created to address labor issues

Be they consumers, workers, or industry, there is little disagreement that there is a sad history of labor abuse associated with the dairy industry. As one of the most well-respected and recognized ethical labels on the market, Fair Trade USA stands for fair and safe working conditions. It is for this very reason that in 2019 we began exploring whether the rigorous standards that we have developed in the agricultural sector could provide the same kind of positive impact for the farmworkers, dairy farmers, and manufacturers who help bring dairy products to market. The dairy certification program was built into our Agricultural Production Standard (APS) – the backbone of our certification model. The APS is based on over 23 years of experience developing programs in alignment with internationally agreed-upon best practices. It utilizes principles defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which ensure opportunities for decent and productive work, freedom, equity, security, and dignity. Fair Trade USA is also a member of the ISEAL Alliance, the international organization driving the advancement of collaborative and transparent sustainability standards. Those organizations require the kind of rigor in the development of standards and processes that Fair Trade USA has always taken. That includes multi-stakeholder consultation, posting of draft standards for public comment, reporting back of inputs, explanations of what was and wasn’t adopted and why, and publication of the final standard. It also includes regular updates and revisions to the standard.

Why 3rd party certification works to ensure compliance

One signifier of the reliability of a certification is finding and addressing violations in a timely, effective manner. Violations happen in any human-operated system or program. Fair Trade USA prides itself on its responsiveness and decisiveness when non-compliances are found. For instance, when a claim was made that a melon farm in Honduras had violated parts of our labor standard, we responded. Upon conducting an audit, evidence of non-compliance was found and the farm was decertified. There are a range of corrective actions built into our standards – some requiring less-stringent action, like suspension while addressing areas required for re-entering the system. It is the application of corrective action and the very ability for violations to be surfaced that demonstrate the efficacy of a standard. Trusted third-party certification is essential to monitor compliance during and between audits, to investigate issues when they arise, and to act when necessary.

Worker involvement in developing dairy certification

As dairy was a new sector for Fair Trade Certification, farmworker input and feedback were a critical part of the development of the standard. No serious standard can be viable without the voice of the beneficiaries as a key pillar. Farmworker voice was systematically included throughout the process. We led more than 40 engagements – including workshops and interviews, over half of which were held with farmworkers, owners, regulatory managers, and cooperatives. These engagements were held both independently with workers, and together with leadership. In addition, the organization conducted individual interviews with farmworkers on several worker-related changes to the APS to ensure the standard was specific to the dairy sector.

As part of ensuring that all applicable voices are heard, we continued to engage with workers in and outside the program, as well as dairy cooperatives and academics, to solicit input and recommendations during the standard’s public comment period.

One standard for many settings

As Fair Trade USA seeks to grow and scale to reach as many workers, farmers, and fishers as possible, our model needs to be both rigorous and nimble. In order to create a standard that works with equal success for large dairies with thousands of workers, as well as farmers and farm workers on smaller farms, our program is built for accessibility and to encourage a journey of continuous improvement. Recognizing that every farm is at a different phase on their path to sustainability, we build progress milestones and indicators into the program. In order to ensure the fundamental human rights and dignity that workers deserve, our standard includes mandatory non-negotiables regardless of size, number of workers, resourcing, or scale. The first three modules of the dairy standard deal specify some of those.

  • Module 1 Better Livelihoods: focuses on empowerment and the rights of workers to manage their own choices to improve livelihoods through worker-driven committees (social engagement, occupational health and safety management, and community investment).
  • Module 2 Worker Protections: lays out criteria on rights at work, including no forced labor, no child labor, protections for freedom of association, and assurances for zero discrimination.
  • Module 3 Worker Voice: focuses on requirements regarding employment terms, worker safety, hours requirements, and grievance procedures.

Innovation drives progress

As we build from a foundation of strong standards development and program implementation, we also recognize that there are critically important differences across sectors. As such, we build new mechanisms into our standard where need has been identified. One such innovation in the dairy standard is the Compliance Support Fund. This fund came from our conversations with workers. Providing additional resources, separate from the Community Development Fund, these funds go to capital improvements on the farm that specifically improve on-farm operations and offset any costs associated with the improvements needed to qualify for Fair Trade Certification.

Reaping the benefits of Fair Trade Certification

While the program has only been active a short time, it is already showing progress. Through our engagement with workers during the development process, Fair Trade USA learned that language barriers have been a long-term issue in dairy operations. To help solve this, our team connected producers and workers involved in the certification program with a texting application that includes language translation, helping them coordinate day-to-day operations, discuss fair trade activities, and conduct surveys on issues like scheduling and healthcare priorities.

At Fair Trade USA, we believe workers know what is best for their lives and communities. Core to the model are Community Development Funds, which are additional funds on top of wages that serve the identified needs of the community. The management of Community Development Funds sits entirely with workers who conduct needs assessments and vote to allocate funds to address their communities’ greatest needs – both long-running needs like housing and education, as well as emergency relief. During the Covid-19 pandemic, 77% of fair trade producers used their funds for emergency relief like added health and safety measures and cash payouts to offset losses. Communities have also used their funds for education initiatives, environmental improvement projects, and clean water.

In these early stages of fair trade in dairy, there are already projects underway focused on food security and funding health care. As we continue our work in the sector, we will see these come to fruition, as well as many more investments over time. We will continue to report those and tell the story of how fair trade is changing lives and communities in the dairy sector. Since 1998, producers have earned a total financial benefit of $846 million from sales of Fair Trade Certified products, including over $550 million in Community Development Funds.

Delivering impact for workers, businesses, and consumers

For 23 years Fair Trade USA has been a trusted partner of farmers and workers, companies and brands, and consumers. Our commitment to helping producers and workers improve their livelihoods and communities has reached millions of lives and generated incredible impact. Our ability to demonstrate the value of investing in the people behind supply chains has resulted in more than 1,400 businesses partnering with us to deliver on their environmental, social, and governance goals. And our efforts to put the power to make a difference in the hands of consumers across the United States has unlocked all of that. It is because of this that 79% of consumers trust the Fair Trade Certified seal to help them make simple ethical choices when they shop. They know that buying Fair Trade Certified™ products not only supports workers but is a vote for conscious business practices that ensure sustainability for everyone. We are proud that they can now do this in the dairy sector as well.