ETHICAL-CERTIFICATION companies are failing to combat an epidemic of forced labour at the base of the tea and cocoa industries worldwide, researchers at the University of Sheffield have found.
In a study published last week, academics reported that agricultural workers in the cocoa industry in Ghana, and the tea industry in India, were paid very low wages and were routinely subjected to multiple forms of exploitation.
Ethical-certification schemes, such as the Fairtrade Foundation, were failing to prevent labour exploitation from infiltrating the tea and cocoa supply chains, it said.
“Large-scale reforms” were also needed from governments, businesses, and industry auditors internationally. The Fairtrade Foundation has pledged to investigate.
The study was informed by two years of research, including a survey of more than 1000 tea and cocoa workers from 22 tea plantations in India and 74 cocoa communities in Ghana. Interviews were also conducted with 120 tea and cocoa workers, and 100 business and government figures.
Almost all cocoa workers who were surveyed reported that they did not know whether the farm that they were working on was certified or not. Almost one quarter (23 per cent) had carried out unpaid labour.
Of the tea workers in the study, 40 per cent said that they had had unfair deductions made from their wages, while 47 per cent said that they lacked access to safe drinking water.
Workers also reported cases of sexual violence; verbal abuse; threats of violence and dismissal; debt bondage; lack of housing, sanitation, water, food, and medical care; and being forced to complete unpaid labour as a condition of employment.
Both groups lived beneath the poverty line: tea workers in India were paid an average wage of 25 per cent below the poverty line, and cocoa workers in Ghana were paid wages amounting to 30 per cent below the poverty line.
The project was led by Professor Genevieve LeBaron, who is also co-director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute.
“The exploitation we document is not randomly occurring abuse by a few ‘bad apples’,” she said. “Instead, it is the result of structural dynamics of how global agricultural supply chains are organised.
“Highly profitable companies at the helm of these supply chains exert heavy price-pressure on suppliers. This puts extreme pressure on tea and cocoa producers to cut costs, and creates a business ‘demand’ for cheap, and sometimes forced labour.
“Ethical-certification schemes are failing to tackle this demand. Some of the worst cases of exploitation documented within our research occurred on ethically certified plantations.”
A spokesperson for the Fairtrade Foundation commented on Monday: “Fairtrade takes these allegations of low pay and poor working practices at certified estates in Assam and Kerala, as well cocoa communities in Ghana, very seriously.
“Our overriding concern is to ensure the safety and security of all those involved on Fairtrade-certified farms. Through our independent auditors, FLOCERT, all Fairtrade certified farms are regularly inspected on the ground to ensure our standards are being upheld. If there is any suggestion that these standards have not been met, we will investigate further.”
Commenting specifically on the tea industry, the spokesperson said: “Fairtrade is making progress on improving the situation for workers and their families on Fairtrade-certified tea estates, but the incredibly complex nature of the challenges means we have not always been able to make as much of a difference as we want to, and we are committed to going further.”
The same, he said, was true of its relationship with cocoa estates: “We are reviewing our minimum price and premium for cocoa and are committed to pushing for a new sustainable pricing model based on a benchmark ‘living income reference price’.
“We are also reviewing our standard covering Small Producer Organisations, which included conditions for hired workers.”