Does Fairtrade really make a difference?

We currently in the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea growing estates, staying in a town called Bandarawela.

We can be easily persuaded by cynicism that suggests that paying extra for fairly traded tea, coffee, and bananas goes only to increase the profit margins of supermarkets. Do the workers really benefit? Today, during a visit to an organic Fairtrade tea factory we were surprised by what we found (an unofficial visit, so we aren’t naming the factory concerned).

By chance, we had made another visit to a conventional tea factory just only a couple of days ago. That factory was interesting enough, but as soon as we started today’s visit we immediately noticed a difference as we were asked to dress in special gowns, face masks and bags to cover our shoes, something the other factory did not require of us.

Inside the Fairtrade factory, staff were likewise kitted out with protective clothing and the environment was scrupulous clean. There was none of the slap dash attitude we saw in the previous factory, where we frequently saw processed tea leaves falling onto the floor, which were then swept up and put back into the process by staff who wore no protective clothing. By contrast in this Fairtrade factory, staff continually took great care that there was no spillage.

Workers at the Fairtrade factory are actively encouraged to help improve the production process, with rewards and promotions for those who perform best – there was no evidence of this at the conventional factory.

But there is more that is inspiring to the story of the Fairtrade tea factory. The original vision for the project was driven by a Muslim who now has a multifaith workforce. Our guide, an Anglican, told us that each day begins with prayers, the workers assembling in whichever faith tradition they are part of (most are Hindu), undergirding the spiritual foundations of the organisation.

Out in the field there are notable differences with conventional tea plantations. The absence of chemicals in the organic system results in better health for the pickers in the field. Staff live in individual houses, with electricity and space around to grow food, instead of rows of shacks reminiscent of hop pickers’ huts.

So it was really encouraging to witness how Fairtrade really does make a difference.