My personally selfish reaction is that fair trade coffee is more expensive than and doesn’t taste as good as the coffee that I enjoy. I think that is more important than most people will give credit to. Enjoyable products at a low price matter However, it isn’t morally persuasive if my latte creates misery for others.
The truth is, though, that “fair wages” isn’t as simple as proposition as its proponents would contend. We can’t simply decide that we want companies to pay its workers more, and offer more comfortable working environments. The truth is, that the real option is between low wages and no wages; working conditions that are below the norm in the developed West, or no work at all. Those of us with incomes sufficient to purchase $4 lattes can wring our hands, but solutions aren’t simple.
If we boycott coffee which doesn’t satisfy “fair trade” guidelines, we deny the jobs that let workers earn even the meager salary they receive. We make them worse off.
Economics teaches us that the value of a wage can only rise when workers are more productive. They become more productive through higher human capital (education) and through combining labor with machinery (capital). Access to capital only works in a legal environment which encourages investment (low taxes) and protects private property. We really need to look at the oppressive governments in coffee producing nations, and blame them for the economic conditions that people live under. It’s the government policies not the employers that are to blame.
The hard truth is that sweatshop workers are better off than if the sweatshop companies weren’t there. We might wish the workers were even better off — but laws like the one proposed in Berkeley don’t make that happen. They simply switch business investment to more hospitable climates, and deny jobs to the least advantaged in the world.