New Report Documents How Fair Trade Certifier is Destroying Workers’ Rights




The Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO), which certifies companies using the Fair for Life label, neglected to intervene to uphold its commitment to fair trade standards, according to a new report released today by the Washington, DC-based International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF).

The report, titled Aiding and Abetting, exposes how IMO branded Theo Chocolate, a Seattle-based chocolate company, with its Fair For Life certification despite being informed by Theo workers that the company had hired an anti-union consultant and was violating the international labor standards promoted by Fair For Life during a union organizing campaign.

When Theo workers decided to join the Teamsters, management responded with hostility, intimidation and retaliation including threatening to close the company if workers formed a union, harassing union supporters, driving several workers to leave the company, and firing at least one union supporter. Theo workers were able to convince IMO to conduct an audit post-certification, but IMO upheld Theo’s fair trade certification and told the workers that the results of the audit were confidential. IMO soon after issued new labor standards, which actually recommend employers hire consultants to talk to workers about the pros and cons of organizing – effectively justifying Theo’s actions.

“IMO claims to be transparent, but the results of their complaints investigation was confidential; so all workers heard was that IMO upheld the certification and then nearly two years later that the case had been closed,” said Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the ILRF. “The lack of recourse for workers, and the lack of accountability among certifications like Fair for Life is unacceptable. We are proposing a new approach that would increase the transparency of certifiers and give consumers additional confidence in fair trade products.”

“These workers put their trust in fair trade standards but when Theo crushed them, IMO certified it,” said Antonio Christian, Director of the Teamsters Human Rights Commission. “The Teamsters and the fair trade community share a common goal of economic justice across the food supply chain. The independent arbitration process proposed in the report will be an excellent step in that direction.”

Although many codes of conduct guarantee the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, in practice workers in fair trade supply chains often face barriers to exercises their rights. To address these barriers the report recommends fair trade certifiers make their auditing results transparent and establish an “International Fair Trade Board of Appeal” to assess and remedy instances where fair trade organizations mishandle cases involving allegations of workers’ rights violations. 

“An increasing number of consumers are raising questions about the integrity of fair trade certifications,” said Ronnie Cummins, Director of the Organic Consumers Association. “While we acknowledge the efforts of IMO and Theo to tie the full supply chain to issues of fairness, which has traditionally been a weakness of fair trade, these good intentions must be backed up by proper stakeholder involvement, such as labor representatives on decision-making bodies and grievance review boards. We call on IMO, Theo, and other leaders of the fair trade movement to improve stakeholder involvement and transparency as the next steps in ensuring truly fair supply chains.”