What if you discovered that the Fair Trade tea in your cupboard really wasn’t fair? How would you feel? If you found out that the extra money you paid for your tea because of the Fair Trade label never really made it to the workers, would you still feel that your conscience was satisfied? Worldwide, millions of consumers, purchase Fair Trade product with a belief that the Fair Trade system works– that the extra money paid goes to fight poverty, end hunger and ensure that workers in Third World countries are getting a fair wage for their labors. Fair Trade has become a 21st-century buzzword filled with progressive promises of increased labor standards and higher levels of employee welfare. Consumers contribute to Fair Trade as a means of satisfying a desire to, “do the right thing”; “do something good.” Some even consider that buying Fair Trade products is a charitable act of duty. What if that was all wrong?

In 2008, a pair of Danish documentary filmmakers produced The Bitter Taste of Tea. It was aired on Danish television and highlighted issues and concerns that are currently ongoing in the Fair Trade tea industry. The filmmakers travelled to tea producing countries, visited tea plantations, both traditional and Fair Trade. There they uncovered some truths and realities of Fair Trade. They shake the tree and produce an image of Fair Trade that is unsettling, disturbing and even somewhat shocking.

The film made headlines throughout 2009 and is now finally available to the English-speaking world. A screening was held in January 2010 at the University of California, Los Angeles. The screening was followed by a forum discussion moderated by acclaimed tea author, Beatrice Hohenegger. We’ve reviewed the film, listened to the discussion and were surprised to learn that Fair Trade is not what we thought it was.

You’ll find links to the film, with English subtitles, and to a podcast of the UCLA forum discussion at the end of this article.

About Fair Trade
TransFair USA, the US Fair Trade certification organization, states that, “Fair Trade Certification empowers farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace.” In essence, it is meant to work by charging consumers higher prices in the marketplace in order to fund investment and higher wages directly back at the production level. Fair Trade premiums, the additional cost added to products, is not built into the supply chain, but paid directly back to the producing farms by Fair Trade organizations. The intent to is provide financial support to farms and laborers to improve employee welfare and quality of living. At its core, Fair Trade fights poverty
and labor abuse.

What does the film show?
The producers of the film investigate the farms and labor communities which produce the tea that we drink. It shows that Fair Trade is more of a failed movement than one that works. In the crystalline palaces of Europe, the realities of giving money back to the farms seems to be in stark contrast to the practices and benefits that actually show up.

“All of us would much rather drink tea, than pluck tea,” says Rodney North of Equal Exchange. North was one of the forum participants at the UCLA screening of the film. His coop firm, Equal Exchange, is a long time American firm bringing Fair Trade foods to the American market. North concedes that there are problems, a lot of organizations make big promises; following through on them can sometimes be problematic.


Kelliewatte (kelley-wata) estate in Sri Lanka is a Fair Trade certified estate. However, conditions there are difficult. As can be seen in the still image from the film, poverty has actually increased despite Fair Trade. In Sri Lankan plantations, 40-50% of women are malnourished or underfed. This leads one to think, why should anyone be underfed? These people are working everyday, they have jobs, and yet they cannot afford to eat? It is one thing to be poor and unemployed, but to work in difficult and tiring labor everyday and still not have enough to eat is something else entirely.

Pesticide Use

The film has a segment on pesticide use. As can be seen in the still image captures below, the methods and practices used in the employment of pesticides is far from safe. Workers, on and off Fair Trade plantations, wear no protective equipment whatsover. It seems to be unclear where the heart of the problem is. Though likely, it is nothing more than an attitude of, “we’ve always done it that way.” These images are from the Fair Trade Kelliewatte plantation in Sri Lanka.






Distribution of Funds and Benefits

The film makers found again and again, unfair and uncertain measures when it came to the distribution of Fair Trade money. Most Fair Trade organiations require that a committee be established on the plantations, made up of the workers and selected by the workers.

This committee is intended to decide how funds are spent. It was found that many workers never heard of the money, or the committees themselves were ineffectual because of decisions made by plantation management. Some workers are not paid salaries, but paid per kilo, making them more dependant on the seasons, age and physical ability and other widely variable factors

Some workers reported that Fair Trade funds are put into pensions to be received at retirement, however, the larger complaint is that pensions never get paid. But despite the somewhat benevolent appearance of the establishment of pensions – workers need the money now, not in 10-15 years when they can no longer work. Investments in the short term in worker’s health and welfare will have greater benefits than investments into pensions that have a habit of disappearing further on down the line.


Child Labor

With very limited educational options available in rural areas, many workers find it easier to bring their children to work with them in the tea gardens. Some would say that this is a useful way to pass on knowledge of tea to a next generation, making it a cultural issue. However, the more painful reality is that even Fair Trade workers are bringing their children into the gardens to pick more tea and make more money. Or simply, just to ensure the day’s quota is met.



Fair Trade organizations conduct annual visits to Fair Trade plantations. There are no surprise visits and farm managers are given plenty of time to get things in order before the arrival of inspectors. David Funkhauser, of TransFair USA, says that it is hard to monitor the vast number of Fair Trade farms and plantations. During the UCLA forum, he presents the example of coffee cooperatives stating that large ones with over 5,000 members are extremely difficult to monitor. It is important to remember that Fair Trade covers a large number of products from tea and coffee, fruits and vegetables and even flowers. With the limitations inherent in any beaurocracy that large, and the tight budgeting restraints that all organizations have – should we be surprised of all the problems and issues in the Fair Trade system?


Fair Trade is accused of being a failed idea. It attempts to improve conditions in countries that are long known for poverty, abuse and corruption. In 2008, the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) reported that corruption in tea producing countries bears a major impact on sustainability issues in the tea industry. Charles Cain, a buiness development specialist for Adagio Teas recently wrote an opinion on Fair Trade tea. In it, he recounts an encounter he had with a very wealthy plantation owner who described how destitute his workers were and how cool-hearted Americans can be when they don’t buy Fair Trade tea. The image Cain presents is one of a wealthy man, showcasing compassion for his employees but whose motivations for entering into Fair Trade certification might be more due to marketing than because of a real concern for the welfare of his pluckers.

According to Katherine Stone, a law professor at UCLA and an expert on labor and employment law in the United States, the World Trade Organiation does not demand labor standards in third world countries when it works to generate trade agreements. The belief is that these countries have so few advantages as it is, creating trade agreements that enforce labor standards removes the advantage they have of low-cost labor. While the logic behind this thinking makes sense, the impact of it creates an evironment where there are few hard laws enforcing labor standards in tea producing countries. The lack of hard laws is part of the reason that soft law movements like Fair Trade and social pressure are working to improve labor standards. However, those movements are not following through on their promises.

The benevolent impact that Fair Trade claims to bring seems very far off. It appears broad in scope but limited in its application and serves to salve the conscience of western consumers far more that it does to sooth the hunger pains of the workers who pick the tea which we drink.

  • A recording of the UCLA forum discussion featuring can be found at the UCLA Asia Institute. It features
    Beatrice Hohenegger, author of Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West, as the moderator; Rodney North, from the firm Equal Exchange; David Funkhauser, from Trans Fair USA; and Katherine Stone, UCLA law professor and expert on labor law

Do you drink or insist on Fair Trade tea? Do you do it because you believe you are making a difference? How does learning what we’ve presented above make you feel about your Fair Trade purchases?