This year Fairtrade Ireland will be celebrating their 20th birthday and Unite Youth Dublin would like to wish them 20 more years of success. As a part of the upcoming Fairtrade fortnight, 2 weeks dedicated to highlighting Fairtrade, we’ve decided to have a look at the links between this movement and our own.
Trade unions and the Fairtrade movement share many common goals and have a long history of working together. In Columbia, unionised workers on banana plantations were able to secure a living wage using the ethos of ‘fair trade’, while in the Dominican Republic, fair trade and union activists successfully lobbied the government to improve conditions for illegal Haitian migrants by securing passports and documents for them. In Europe, trade unions aided the creation of 17 Fairtrade cities in Sweden. Unite the Union also supports the fair trade movement through its use of Fairtrade branded t-shirts as well as active campaigning.
It’s easy to see why the Fairtrade movement is sometimes seen as a natural ally to our own as fair and decent wages are a key element of trade-unionism. Yet the approach taken is decidedly different: Trade-unionists create unity amongst workers and use strength of numbers to improve and defend working conditions while Fairtrade adopts a marketing approach which is reliant on consumer support to ensure success. It goes without saying that strong and active unions are needed in countries that produce tea, coffee, bananas, etc, but fewer people realise that supportive unions in the “developed” world are vital to ensure that fair trade products are bought and sought after. Due to a lack of demand at present, only a small percentage of Fairtrade certified raw materials are bought as fair trade goods, meaning the material gains for the workers on the ground are lower than they should be.
Trade unions should support the gains created in the name of Fairtrade but they also need to push for “fair trade” to mean more than it does at the moment. The Fairtrade movement has made a real contribution to improving working conditions by introducing fair trade certification to ensure workplaces provide a minimum wage, involve workers in decision-making, guarantee health & safety standards, meet environmental requirements and ban child labour. However, this also introduces a significant cost barrier which has side-lined smaller farms and co-operatives in favour of larger multi-national companies who can introduce these changes with relative ease. It is important that such standards are implemented but it is also critical that local companies and farmers are given the supports they need to allow them to reach these conditions and become ‘ethical’. At present, it could be said that there is little fair in the process of becoming a Fairtrade producer. There are also issues regarding the lack of rigorous independent auditing to verify that stated standards exist in actuality in the workplaces of larger producers, manufacturers or buyers.
Alarm bells should ring when you realise that Nestlè is a Fairtrade accredited manufacturer and buyer. In essence, this just means that at least 20% of products Nestlè mark as ‘Fairtrade’ must be made up of certified raw materials. This figure is not high and it is not impressive, especially considering Nestlè is one of the biggest buyers of cocoa and coffee in the world. There is the opportunity for Nestlè to exceed the 20% figure and lead by example but they choose not to, inevitably because this would reduce profit margins. We also know that Nestle is not meeting the fair trade employment standards and has a record of engaging in union busting. These two issues are linked and highlight the weaknesses of the Fairtrade idea.Essentially, the movement will remain an exercise in feel-good labelling unless if Fairtrade employment standards are enforced on the ground and this should be ensured by local unions, as a minimum standard, as part of the struggle for improved conditions beyond what Fairtrade accreditation provides workers. Unless this is the case then Fairtrade employment standards will continue to be an effort to moralise large corporations into providing the bare necessities of compassionate employment, rather than promoting genuine ethical workplaces through unionisation and supporting local communities.
There are weaknesses to the Fairtrade approach but in the main, it is not the fault of this relatively small organisation that powerful multi-nationals put profit before workers. Putting the blame at the door of the Fairtrade movement for these wrongs is excessive when it is essentially: an effort to provide an ethical alternative to the mass-exploitation of the ‘developing’ world and its deficiencies are all a reflection of how challenging this is to achieve. However, while it is important that unions such as Unite support the Fairtrade movement to create demand for ethically produced goods, we must also make it clear that fairness in production will not be given freely by employers but has to be demanded by unionised workers on the ground. It has always been thus, and its important that we remember that.