LOS ANGELES, California — The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many challenges for fair trade producers globally. Garment workers, farmers and artisans encounter obstacles ranging from lockdown closures to limited materials due to supply chain disruptions. A survey by Fair Trade USA’s Impact, Research and Learning team indicates that two-thirds of fair trade producers experienced “a drop in demand” for fair trade goods due to COVID-19. COVID-19 restrictions harshly impact fair trade production. While producers work to provide for their families, these producers also “face income scarcity” as apparel factories close and labor shortages disrupt harvests. Crowded work housing leaves migrant workers vulnerable to COVID-19 as social distancing becomes difficult. Fair trade producers also navigate work with limited public transportation during lockdown periods. Organizations such as Ten Thousand Villages aim to mitigate COVID-19’s impact on fair trade.
COVID-19’s Impact on Fair Trade
COVID-19’s impact on fair trade is notable in the agricultural and apparel industries in developing countries. Although agricultural supply chains continue moving, farmers need more information on safety practices and COVID-19 in general. Apparel industries resort to downsizing as changes in market demands occur. However, some companies work to reduce the strain on fair trade producers.
Some fair trade companies are providing workers with advances and are opening factory health clinics to support workers as hospitals become overcrowded. Fair Trade USA supports its partners by allowing its Fair Trade Community Development Fund to go toward masks, medicine, food and cash advances for producers. The Fair Trade Minimum Price will also safeguard coffee producers when prices reduce “due to excess inventory.” Coconut farms in areas with heavy lockdowns and restrictions, like Sri Lanka and Indonesia, utilized Fair Trade Community Development Funds to distribute food to more than 2,000 farmers facing the impacts of COVID-19. Many fair trade companies continue to maintain partnerships and protect producers from exploitation, now more than ever.
Ten Thousand Villages
As agriculture and factories experience challenges, so do self-employed artisans. Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade nonprofit organization, partners with artisans in more than 25 developing countries. The organization aims to break the cycle of poverty and support independent makers by selling their wares in new markets online and in stores throughout the United States and even Canada. Ten Thousand Villages supports artisans through its “maker-to-market” approach, a strategy that invests in artisans and provides safe working environments to break the cycle of poverty. The Borgen Project spoke with Ten Thousand Villages’ staff to assess COVID-19’s impact on artisans and learn more about the organization’s response to the pandemic.
Ten Thousand Villages: Makers and Restrictions
The COVID-19 pandemic impacts the livelihoods of Ten Thousand Villages’ artisans. The Borgen Project spoke with Doug Lapp, Ten Thousand Villages’ director of artisans relations, and Hayley Chessir, associate director of the Pasadena store location. Lapp states that almost all partners face pandemic restrictions. According to Lapp, the pandemic strains artisans’ “ability to procure raw materials, maintain production and transport finished goods.”
Ten Thousand Villages currently works with artisans in many countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam and India, all of which have experienced strict lockdowns. The pandemic negatively affects each country and its artisans. For instance, COVID-19 threatens Bangladesh’s poverty reduction progress and economic recovery. As exports decline, inequality and poverty rise. Bangladesh’s strict lockdown in July 2021 caused migrant workers to leave the capital and return to their villages.
The World Bank asserts that Bangladesh must “address the challenge of creating jobs/employment through a competitive business environment, increased human capital and skilled labor force.” Ten Thousand Villages’ investment model addresses this issue by creating sustainable employment that lasts generations in artisan families. Moreover, Ten Thousand Villages addresses Bangladesh’s high risk of food and waterborne diseases by building water treatment and sanitation systems in makers’ workspaces. The organization continues to support its makers by maintaining established partnerships throughout the pandemic.
Ten Thousand Villages’ Response
Fair trade organizations play a vital role in creating opportunities for people in developing countries. The pandemic threatens the livelihoods of an already vulnerable population. For example, COVID-19 disrupted the global progress on child labor reduction. In 2021, child labor has risen for the first time in 20 years, with 160 million children now working. Approximately 79 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 participate in “hazardous work.” By the close of 2022, about nine million more children may be at risk of engaging in child labor.
School closures and economic disruptions in households during the pandemic have led to more children entering the workforce early on. UNICEF and the International Labour Organization find that 70% of child laborers work in agriculture, 20% of children work in services “and 10% in industry.” Ten Thousand Villages attempts to break the cycle of poverty and create sustainable employment for households. By creating lasting trading partnerships with artisans and their families, Ten Thousand Villages helps generate income security. Economic security significantly reduces child labor by building stability within households.
In addition, Ten Thousand Villages aids vulnerable artisans, primarily women and people with disabilities. Artisans need even more support in the pandemic. Lapp states that Ten Thousand Villages continues to work closely with artisans, despite the pandemic’s limits and restrictions. For example, Ten Thousand Villages did not cancel any purchase orders or reduce purchase quantities during the pandemic. The organization remains flexible with artisans in terms of production and shipping schedules.
Lapp asserts that Ten Thousand Villages has continued this “working relationship ever since the initial impacts experienced in 2020 and will continue doing so” for as long as its partners face the negative impacts of COVID-19.
How to Support Fair Trade
By supporting fair trade organizations like Ten Thousand Villages, shoppers can help artisans and producers support themselves during the pandemic. Consider supporting self-employed artisans by shopping at Ten Thousand Villages’ online store or one of its locations across the United States and Canada during the holiday season. Ten Thousand Villages remains committed to its makers with its ongoing investments and microfinancing model. Chessir maintains that each product sale and donation “expands [Ten Thousand Villages’] ability to deepen artisan relationships, explore new partnerships and continue [its]work to break the cycle of poverty.”
– Dana Gil