Blog: "Farmers and workers tell us they need Fair Trade more than ever."

Friday 1 May 2020

On International Labour Day, longstanding Fair Trade campaigner and member of the East Dunbartonshire Fair Trade Group, Angela Oakley, explores Fair Trade's role in protecting workers in the coronavirus emergency. 

The Fair Trade movement can be proud of its achievements just now.  At a time when things are getting pretty tough, Fair Trade is giving protection to workers.  Those in the Fair Trade system are in a stronger position to deal with the coronavirus emergency.  The steps taken to give farmers and workers more income, premiums for investment and joint working in co-operatives give them better coping mechanisms.  Yet again I am reminded of why we have campaigned for Fair Trade and why I am proud that Scotland is a Fair Trade Nation.

Let’s take a look at what is happening.  To say the least, farmers and workers are facing an increasingly difficult time.  Supply chains are disrupted and markets are disappearing fast in the lockdowns.  For flower growers in East Africa, flights to carry produce to European markets are suspended, so tons of flowers are being dumped every day.  In the clothing industry big brands are cancelling orders, which means there is no work in the factories and no pay for their workers.  In India the lockdown means workers cannot attend the tea estates.  The cost of production has gone up as farmers and workers need to find the resources they need to protect themselves. 

Fair Trade: economic security

Of course, Fair Trade cannot solve all these problems, but it eases the situation for farmers and workers.

The Fairtrade Guaranteed Minimum Price and WFTO's Fair Payment gives stability and more income.  Economically empowered communities are better able to mitigate risks and take protective action when an emergency arises. 

The Fairtrade Premium, the extra sum earned by producer organisations, is being used to safeguard workers.  Fairtrade International has issued new guidelines so that Fairtrade premiums can be used without delay to minimise the spread of the disease.  Premiums can be used to purchase and distribute face masks and PPE and to spread the message about hygiene.  In some cases the Fairtrade Premium can now be issued as direct cash to workers.  On Fairtrade-certified tea and flower plantations, which earned more than 11 million Euro in Fairtrade Premium in 2018, this could benefit around 145,000 workers.

Titus Pinto, Chair of United Nilgiri Tea Estates (UNITEA) in Tamil Nadu, India reports:  “We are locked down and the workers are unable to go out.  We have issued 10kgs of rice, 1kg of sugar, 750 grammes of lentils, half a litre of cooking oil and 100 grammes each of salt, pepper and other spices to each family. This has all been paid for out of the Fairtrade Premium.

Community working 

Community working, fostered by Fair Trade co-operatives, is key to weakening the impact of the virus.  Local organisations are giving training and guidance on how farmers and workers can protect themselves.  They keep in touch with farmers via weekly memos, WhatsApp groups and SMS messages.

These community organisations are well set up to arrange assistance.  In Ecuador, banana producers are sharing surplus bananas where food is short in the community.  In Pakistan, Fairtrade sports ball producers have sewn face masks for local distribution.  In South Africa, wine producers have provided sanitizer for workers’ homes. In Peru, craft makers are releasing emergency food and health funds in their communities. 

Meanwhile, the World Fair Trade Organization is ensuring that essential, lifesaving information flows through its networks and reaches those in need. It is also encouraging us to stand in solidarity with producers through the #StayHomeLiveFair campaign.

The Fair Trade movement has built an awareness amongst customers about supply chains and working conditions.  People now want to know who makes their clothes and whether or not they have been exploited in sweatshops. This awareness and concern is powerful.  The large supermarkets are protective of their image, and are taking public opinion into account when they decide if they should cancel the millions of pounds worth of orders they have placed with factories in Bangladesh for clothing which they will struggle to sell in the lockdowns.  Fair Trade principles put it simply: "where orders are cancelled through no fault of producers or suppliers, adequate compensation is guaranteed for work already done" (WFTO Principle Three).

The international Fair Trade movement gives strength and direction to the much needed call for global action.  CEOs of Fair Trade organisations have written to the G20 to call on leaders to help protect farmers and workers in developing countries during the current emergency.  They have set out priority areas for action now and indicated how these should be extended going forward. 

Farmers are key workers

Farmers tell us they need Fairtrade now more than ever.  They are key workers who are essential to our food supply.  Remember, no farmer, no banana.  The corona crisis has shown us the need for strong, resilient, sustainable food supplies and how important the principles of Fair Trade are in times of emergency. 

The Fair Trade movement can proudly continue to build on its record of achievement.  The message is to stay at home, but live fair and buy fair, keeping simultaneously distant from, but in unison with, those we rely on.

By Angela Oakley, member of the East Dunbartonshire Fair Trade Group