What does farming have to do with human rights?


by Fairtrade Canada

Most of us are familiar with human rights such as equality, freedom of religion and expression, and freedom from slavery and persecution.

But there are also rights affirmed over the years by the international community, from the UN Declaration of Human Rights – now 71 years old – to the 2018 UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas that directly relate to the everyday life of many small-scale farmers and agricultural workers around the world.

  • The right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring an existence worthy of human dignity.
  • The right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being.
  • Freedom of association, including the right to form trade unions and bargain collectively.
  • The rights of children to access safe schooling and protection.

In agricultural production, examples of violations of these rights include:

  • Low prices paid to farmers, resulting in extreme poverty: this violates producers’ rights to a decent standard of living and often causes further infringements of other rights, for example, the right to health and well-being.
  • Discrimination against women and other minorities: this keeps people locked in exploitative labour situations and denies them their rights to equal protection and fair remuneration. 
  • Employers deterring workers’ attempts to unionize: union busting in any form violates freedom of association.

Fairtrade recognizes that human rights are universal. We also recognize the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, including Children’s Rights and Business Principles, as a key framework for protecting and respecting human rights of farmers, workers and their communities. It forms the basis for the responsibilities of all business actors along supply chains.

Where Fairtrade comes in

Fairtrade has been advocating these principles for more than 30 years, including that buyers and retailers have a responsibility to ensure that their business practices, including the prices they set, do not violate the rights of farmers and workers, their families and communities.

The Fairtrade Standards require producer organizations and traders to follow rules that guarantee a fairer price to farmers; ensure democratic organization; build equality for women; support labour rights and safe working conditions; and give producers more power in trade relationships.

Beyond the standards, we also dive deeper into specific rights-related challenges. For instance, we have developed living income reference prices for key commodities and regions (such as cocoa and vanilla), and then work with partners to move towards those prices and the other factors that support living incomes for farmers.  Producer organizations in 11 countries have implemented our youth-inclusive community-based monitoring and remediation system to tackle child labour. Next year, some producer organizations will be using this inclusive monitoring and remediation system to take action on forced adult labour and gender-based violence. We actively promote social dialogue and collective bargaining between management and workers at Fairtrade certified plantations.

Here are some examples of how Fairtrade supports farmers and workers to more fully realize their rights.

Promoting gender equality and engaging young people

Fairtrade organizes Women’s Schools of Leadership in all Fairtrade producer regions, including in four countries in the Asia Pacific region. Participants learn from a curriculum including topics from women’s human rights and development of self-esteem, to income diversification and project management, and then share their knowledge back at home.

Tran Ban Hung, Vietnam program manager for the region’s Fairtrade producer network (NAPP), says the leadership school “supports producers, especially young farmers, to learn to equip themselves with a knowledge of human rights and women’s rights, [so they can] be a champion of change. Change for the community, change for their cooperative, and [to] bring a generation of protecting the rights of farmers and workers, especially for women and other vulnerable people.”

In Colombia in September, the regional Fairtrade producer network, CLAC, organized workshops where representatives of Fairtrade cooperatives shared their experiences in moving their organizations toward greater inclusion of women and young people. A gender inclusion toolbox was rolled out, providing a framework for organizations to build stronger gender rights within their members, as well as their communities. Workshops for young people from 25 organizations built skills in transformative leadership and entrepreneurship, aiming to empower the next generation of farmers to secure their own livelihoods.

Supporting the right to earn a decent livelihood

Coffee farmer Segundo Alejandro Guerrero Mondragón is a co-founder of the Fairtrade certified Cooperativa Agraria Norandino in northern Peru. He and his wife and two sons (shown above) farm their land – “basically coffee is our life,” he says. Global coffee prices hit a 12-year low last year and stayed below US$1 per pound for most of 2019, which doesn’t allow many farmers to break even. The Fairtrade Minimum Price provides a safety net that enables farmers to earn more and provides security when their right to be able to earn enough to live in dignity is threatened. 

Segundo wants to pass his farm onto his children, so future generations can continue his family’s coffee farming heritage. Says his son Omar, “Thanks to this coffee production, parents could provide education to their children, and now their children’s children can also have careers.”

Enabling rights of indigenous peoples

Earlier this year, the United Workers’ Foundation at the Don Marce Banana Company (FUTUBAN) in Colombia used their Fairtrade Premium funds to build a school cafeteria, renovate a classroom, and provide a water storage tank at the Marbasella rural settlement in the La Guajira department, about 30 kilometers from the plantation and home to about 50 of the plantation’s workers. Approximately 200 indigenous people from the Wayúu ethnic group live in the Marbasella settlement. Their children, and those in the surrounding communities, are benefitting daily from these improvements.

These are just some examples of the concrete improvements that a focus on human rights can bring about, when people are empowered to know their rights, and advocate for them. There is much to be done, but one way we can all take a stand for human rights – on Human Rights Day and all year round – is by choosing Fairtrade. 

Image by Eduardo Martino for The Fairtrade Foundation.

Bananas Child Protection Coffee Gender Equality HREDD Living Income Workers' Rights