Harvesting consent: South Asian tea plantation workers' experience of Fairtrade certification

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationAcademic


Engaging in a conversation between transnational labor governance in the South Asian tea value chain and labor process theory, this presentation analyzes tea plantation workers’ reinterpretation of Fairtrade certification as rewarding productivity rather than labor rights’ guarantees. Fairtrade certification is an ambitious form of transnational labor governance that seeks to reduce workers’ poverty and to contribute to their empowerment through fairer relations in North-South trade and the guarantee of core labor rights. While many studies locate a mismatch between the certifier’s ambitions and agricultural laborers’ realities in shortcomings of Fairtrade’s governance, this article addresses the dearth of scholarly engagement with the translation of Fairtrade certification into workers’ lived experiences. The underlying paper does so through an empirical analysis of how certification is played out in South Asian tea plantations, a key region for Fairtrade’s labor program. Here, the continuity of exploitative labor conditions that workers have experienced since the establishment of tea plantations under British colonial rule results from the power hierarchy between multinational tea retailers and South Asian tea producers that intersects with different forms of social marginalization subjecting workers at the level of tea plantations. This intersection produces a ‘plantation precariat’ instrumental for cheap labor supply and low product prices. Against this backdrop, South Asian tea plantation workers’ puzzling reinterpretation of Fairtrade as certifying workers’ commitment rather than management compliance with labor rights guarantees forms the starting point of this article. It reads data on workers’ experience of certification generated in 2016 through a mixed methods study in India and Sri Lanka through the lens of Burawoy’s (1979) theory of ‘manufacturing consent’. His seminal contribution to labor process theory shows how the specific organization of the labor process contributes to shaping workers’ consent to exploitative labor conditions. More recently, his work has inspired explorations of how labor control, consent and resistance at the point of production condition dynamics in value chains’ broader political economy.
Period22 Oct 2020
Event titleSeminar at the International Center for Development and Decent Work (ICDD) Graduate School
Event typeOther
LocationKassel, GermanyShow on map

Research programs

  • ISS-CI