Coffee and tea drinkers spending an extra few dollars on Fairtrade-certified products are not actually benefitting the lives of the poorest workers in rural Ethiopia and Uganda, according to a new report.

Researchers at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London spent four years studying rural labour markets in areas producing coffee, tea and flower crops for export.

They found that the poorest manual agricultural wage workers in Fairtrade-certified farms are in fact paid less, and experience inferior working conditions, compared with those working in areas without Fairtrade certification.

“Careful fieldwork and analysis in this four-year-project leads to the conclusion that in our research sites, Fairtrade has not been an effective mechanism for improving the lives of wage workers, the poorest rural people,” said Christopher Cramer, economics professor at SOAS, and one of the study’s authors.

The Fairtrade Foundation is a U.K.-based charity, founded in 1992, to help producers in developing countries earn more for their products.

The study, funded by Britain’s Department for International Development, involved more than 1,000 days of field research and survey data on 1,700 respondents who exposed the often abysmal conditions of workers who pick the coffee beans, tea leaves, and flowers that make their way to stores in Europe and North America. 

The report, titled “Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda,” looked at several factors contributing to poor working conditions including: wage differences, job duration and sexual harassment.

In Ethiopia, 30 per cent of Fairtrade workers in coffee farms earned less than 60 per cent of the median wage for manual agricultural workers, compared with fewer than 5 per cent of non-Fairtrade workers. Meanwhile, 20 per cent of Fairtrade workers in flower fields in Ethiopia earned less than 60 per cent of the median wage.

“The best paid manual workers -- i.e. the top 20-30 per cent of the earnings distribution -- are more likely to be engaged in producing non-Fairtrade certified commodities,” the report says.

The report also found that those working for Fairtrade and small-scale coffee producers in Uganda and Ethiopia had, on average, fewer days of employment than those working on large-scale coffee production. 

Furthermore, the study found that workers in Fairtrade coffee production in Uganda and Ethiopia had almost no access to paid medical care, while at least some workers in non-Fairtrade production had medical assistance.

Workers in Ugandan coffee production also had less access to: free meals, clean toilets, showers and overtime compensation, compared to their counterparts working in non-Fairtrade production.

Meanwhile, 52 per cent of workers in Fairtrade Ethiopian flower production reported physical or sexual abuse at work, compared to 29 per cent of workers in non-Fairtrade production.

“The focus group in the flower site where there was Fairtrade certification clearly identified unwanted touching, obscene language and supervisors attempting to obtain sexual favours to retain their jobs or get better ones,” the report says.

But in a statement released in response to the report, the Fairtrade Foundation pointed to flaws in the study, and criticized its “generalized conclusions.” The foundation said there is a growing body of evidence that has “documented Fairtrade’s contribution to a wide range of positive benefits for farmers and workers across regions and countries where we work.”