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Fair Trade requirements could hurt, not help, female apparel workers

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Marsha Dickson

Fair Trade certification requirements for apparel, designed to help consumers identify clothes and products that improve working conditions for the largely female population of workers who make them, might have unintended consequences on some women's ability to work and provide for their families, according to research published in a new book, Artisans and Fair Trade: Crafting Development.

Over a three-year period, Marsha Dickson, professor and chair of the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at UD, and Prof. Mary Littrell from Colorado State University interviewed 161 women who reside in Mumbai slums and work for a fair trade company.

They found the women's social, psychological, and economic well-being was enhanced by some business practices that proposed certification requirements would challenge.

The authors cite two concerns: requiring the use of fair trade cotton (which, because of its limited supply, might hinder current fair trade organizations' ability to acquire the commodity) and mandating that all production occur in a factory (which, while aiming to prevent exploitive homework, would disqualify the majority of women who work from home to meet both their household and income needs).

Littrell and Dickson suggest that certification programs allow broad assessment of the benefits of fair trade and demonstrate organizations' accountability to fair trade principles.

"Flexible hours and the opportunity to work at home are essential to women who are often solely responsible for managing their households," said Dickson, who also stressed the importance of women having some time in the workshop environment. "Because many of the women live in abusive households, the workshops provide a critically important physical and psychological refuge and serve as a window to the world outside the slum."

She and Littrell interviewed the 161 women who sew and embroider apparel and household textiles for MarketPlace: Handwork of India, a fair trade organization that began in 1986 as "a modest sewing project for impoverished women" and has since grown to encompass more than 300 artisans.

They found that the women contribute, on average, 40 percent of the household income and that their economic independence has empowered them to make family decisions such as when to marry their daughters and how many children to bear.

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Fair Trade certification requirements for apparel, designed to help consumers identify clothes and products that improve working conditions for the largely female population of workers who make them, might have unintended consequences on some women's abil
10/27/2011
 
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