A Farm Worker Speaks: Fair Trade Makes a Real Difference

Leonardo sees fair trade coffee at Whole Foods

"We are different than small producers. If I lost my job, I lost my job.I have no place to go.
A small producer has their land. We don't have anything.
Fair trade is a light that has come and has brought light and hope to marginalized workers."

I was recently privileged to be the first journalist to hear the story of Leonardo Garcia Salmeron. I met him at the 2013 Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Conference in Boston.  I wanted to publish his story as a celebration of World Fair Trade Day, this Saturday, May 11th.  See, his story deserves celebration.  He is a farm worker, that for the first time knows his voice matters. He knows that justice is not just a dream, but a possibility for him and his colleagues. He no longer feels like one of many disposable coffee pickers in his boss's fields, but as an individual with rights and dignity. Fair trade has empowered him, given him leadership opportunities and has brought hope to his coffee farming community. As you read on, I hope you'll get a sense of the joy and celebration that fair trade is bringing to Leonardo.
Leonoardo is a farm worker from the village of La Dalia, Nicaragua 170 km from the capital, Managua.  Leonardo picks coffee twelve hours a day, five to six days a week, on one of the first coffee farms to work towards fair trade certification.  He's never known anything but life inside his small village, never imagined he would ever have the opportunity to speak as a 'fair trade farm worker' on behalf of his coffee-producing town.
"I'm grateful to be here in this opportunity with you. I never expected to be here. I didn't know about fair trade before . I never heard about it. If everything works well, I'd love to come back again."
I'm impressed with Leonardo's English vocabulary. He's been studying English in university every Saturday and practicing every evening after a long day of work in the field. He tries his best to answer my questions in English.
"I want to practice my English with you," he tells me.
Leonardo works on a coffee plantation (or an 'estate' as Fair Trade USA calls them) named La Revancha. It's a 500-acre farm with 90 permanent workers and on any given day up to 500 temporary workers. La Revancha is one of twelve estates working towards fair trade certification in Fair Trade USA's pilot program called Fair Trade for All. Fair Trade USA sponsored Leonardo's trip to the US, asking him to speak with several groups in Boston at the SCAA. Leonardo has been picking coffee with his family since he was six years old. He's worked on several farms and at 14 became a paid farm worker. Picking coffee is all he's ever known.
Like most farm workers, coffee pickers are paid by the box. Each box is filled with 26 pounds of coffee cherries and is worth C$30 Nicaraguan córdobas or $1.22. On average, Leonardo and his co-workers fill between 9 to 10 boxes a day, valued between C$270 to C$300; $11 to $12 US dollars for a twelve-hour day. And that's the average wage for a fast picker. A more moderately paced picker will pack three boxes of cherries and earn a meager C$90 or $3.65 a day. Leonardo was earning around C$2660 a month, $108, but now that he's taking off on Saturdays to study he loses that time.
"We spend all day working. no breaks during work. If you don't pick coffee you don't get paid. And the faster you work, the more you earn."
Paul Alvarez, Fair Trade USA's Senior Manager of Coffee Innovation and Stakeholder Relations, manages the pilot work at La Revancha. He explained to me that picking coffee cherries isn't easy:
"The fingers move through the plants with a quick, tickling-like motion. It's an ability, really. "
After a little reading on Global Exchange's website, I learned that picking coffee cherries, selective picking, is grueling, labor-intensive work.  Leonardo affirmed this. Workers are exposed to harsh, intensive chemicals.  They have limited access to water.  They have no voice in company decisions and rarely take off more than one day a week. And unlike small producers, farm workers don't own any land. They are at the mercy of the farm owner when it comes to breaks, water and pay. And the pay they make is so little that it barely covers the farm worker's fundamental needs.
"The boss has the money. They don't think we are important. They care only to pick up the production to sell to another person. They don't appreciate how important we are. It only matters about the production. Not about the rights of the workers," Leonardo emotionally expressed to me.
"I want to share that I can only live on the basics. I have no money for smoking. No money for extras."
But how, I wondered, as many in the fair trade movement are questioning, will this new model ensure that farm workers receive higher wages and not instead make the farm owners richer?
"What's your relationship like with your boss?" I asked Leonardo.
"He has a very strong personality.  But things have changed when fair trade came. He knows that if he wants to become fair trade certified he has to get to know the farm workers."
Fair Trade USA is trying to change this dynamic. Fair trade ensures that workers receive a premium and are part of decision-making processes. It also provides third party accountability. If the owners don't abide by the fair trade standards, farm workers can report this to auditors and to Fair Trade USA, knowing they have support.  This is exactly what Fair Trade USA wants to see happen in their pilot estates. (To clarify: Fair Trade USA now has 6 pilots with farm workers, and 6 pilots with independent smallholders. Of these 12, 5 have been certified and the rest are in the pipeline.)

Farm workers from La Revancha

After fair trade certification of La Revancha, Fair Trade USA is hopeful that salaries for farm workers will increase up to 50% over time, as they have seen in banana and tea, fair trade certified estates. However, wage increases are at the discretion of the farm owner and ultimately,are based on sales.  Fair trade does require estate owners to meet the minimum wage standards of the country. Leonardo told me that his boss is, at the least, currently meeting these standards.
But perhaps more than higher wages, Leonardo is very excited about the fair trade premium. When I asked him what his farm would do with the premium his eyes lit up and in less than twenty seconds he rambled off a long list in Spanish,the priority being more access to water on the farm.
"We need to invest in clean water. We don't have access to water when we need it. In the fields we sweat like pigs. We want the farm to distribute water to different sources. They are building more places for water."
"We also want water to distribute to each house. People bring the water from a central location. People want water in their homes."
Just as in fair trade certification for cooperatives, farm workers, even temporary farm workers, democratically elect a fair trade committee. The committee then decides how to use the fair trade premium. There is no intervention by the owner on this decision. Leonardo was elected to be part of this committee and specifically as one of the two people to manage the premium.
"Now and in the future, I'm going to be a witness and share if the premium arrived or not at La Revancha."
After more water access, he wants to see the premium used for educational and health care needs.
"Children need books, pens, backpacks for schools. Teachers need training materials. And we have no center for medicine. The hospital is very far from farms. We walk two hours to the hospital. We also need vitamins."
I asked Leonardo if he was part of the decision-making process in regards to La Revancha beginning the fair trade certification process.
"Yes, I thought fair trade was a good way to give us the power.  I think fair trade will give me tools and freedom to work with more respect, more peace, more rights.  It wasn't just before for us. If the boss buys bad food, we can't say, "I don't like it." If they treat us with injustice, I know things have to change now. Yes, if there is a problem with injustice I know I can contact Fair Trade USA. I trust in Fair Trade USA. This is evidence here that fair trade is helping us, my people. I hope that someday they will be here. We are changing our condition. We are improving our conditions. I want to come back to tell you if it's working or not."
"Do you think fair trade will raise your living conditions?" I asked him.
"I have faith that it can bring us out of poverty, but it depends on you," he answered me  with a big grin.
And in some ways Leonardo's right, isn't he? We, the consumer, are an essential part of the equation. The more of us that commit to purchasing only fairly traded coffee the higher the sales and essentially, the better the chance his small town of La Dalia has of receiving water access in their homes.
La Revancha is still in the auditing phase of fair trade certification, but Fair Trade USA hopes that within the next few months they will receive their certification and be on their way to selling 100% of their productions as fair trade. They will be the first fair trade estate in Nicaragua and the 6th of twelve pilot projects to obtain fair trade certification. Through third-party auditors, like the Sustainable Food Lab and SCS Global Services, Fair Trade USA will monitor the pilots, measuring impact with strategic indicators over the next two years. After the two-year period,Fair Trade USA hopes to assess whether or not they are headed towards their goal of 'fair trade for all.'
Many thanks to Leonardo for sharing his story with me. I celebrate you and the many, hard working, farm workers you represent this World Fair Trade Day.
Stay tuned for the second part of this piece- a deeper look into the impact of fair trade on plantations and the impact this is or isn't having on cooperatives.