Opinion

Fairtrade Fortnight: Fighting exploitation and tackling transparency through banana certification

28 February 2017

Leena Camadoo Photo

“My dream is to carry on working. I want to build and own a house. In Haiti, my home country.”

These are humble aspirations from Fran Leulent, a worker at the Quinta Pasadena banana farm in the Dominican Republic, yet for thousands of agricultural workers and smallholder farmers, even such simple dreams are often unattainable. Low incomes force people to make cuts in basic household expenditure such as putting food on the table, paying for schooling or buying necessary medication. Low incomes mean that people are more likely to remain trapped in poverty.

This Fairtrade Fortnight, we will be highlighting to consumers that paying farmers unfairly while we benefit is exploitative. When we reach for our everyday food, we may be unconsciously feeding exploitation and we become part of the problem. However, we can make a conscious choice to be part of the solution.

Farmers and workers do not expect, or want, charity. What they want, and deserve, is to earn a decent living in return for a hard day’s work. One which allows them to provide for and protect their families.

Banana workers in the Dominican Republic earn on average $6.50 (£5.21) per 8-hour day, approximately 40% higher the legal minimum wage for the agricultural sector. The cost of feeding oneself is estimated at $1.72 (£1.38) per day while housing costs are an extra $2.50 (£2.01) per day. Therefore workers spend two-thirds of their income on essential food and housing costs, before factoring in costs such as clothing, furniture, appliances, healthcare, education, transport, communications, recreation and culture, and additional goods and services such as insurance, bank services, funerals and personal care.

These additional non-food and non-housing costs total a further estimated $6 (£4.81) per day, far beyond the average pay of workers.

(Julio Martinez, worker at Quinta Pasadena, Dominican Republic, outside of his new home which has been constructed with funds from the Fairtrade Premium, Photograph: Fran Afonso)

Whilst most businesses would in theory agree that decent pay and working conditions are the minimum that should be received by all workers, in practice a competitive retail environment forces businesses to operate models which are as cost-efficient as possible. The drive to provide UK consumers with the best prices on food means cutting margins through the rest of the supply chain and often it is the farmers and workers who are the hardest hit.

Income is just one aspect in ensuring decent working conditions. The decent work agenda also states that workers must have security in the workplace, social protection for themselves and their families (i.e. access to health, water and sanitation, education, food security and housing) and be free to express their concerns, organise and participate in decisions which affect their lives.

(Esperanza Gomez, packer at Quinta Pasadena, Vice President of Health & Safety Committee - ©Fran Afonso)

Employers evidently play a critical role in enabling decent working conditions, however, they cannot be expected to deliver this for workers on their own. Decent work requires an integrated approach involving employers’ and workers’ associations, governments and other commercial actors within the supply-chain.

Increasingly businesses are being expected to tackle transparency in their supply-chains and to respond accordingly if exploitation is uncovered.

In 2015 the Modern Slavery Act was passed in the UK, requiring large businesses to declare whether they have taken steps to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place within their supply-chains.

Whilst there are no legal binding requirements to carry out due diligence on the supply-chains, the Act marks a huge step change for businesses as it firmly acknowledges a legal responsibility to uphold human rights within their own supply-chains and to manage the risks which are encountered. It also builds on the role which the public are now playing to greater effect in holding businesses accountable to ethical practices.

Businesses which choose not to address issues around labour practices risk being exposed which could result in damage to the brand. Conversely, businesses which invest in developing transparent supply-chains are also investing in risk proofing their reputation and building trust with their consumer base.

Fairtrade supports the transparency and collaboration which the Act seeks to encourage. Working together with other members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, we contributed to consultations on the draft bill, supporting the decision to include overseas supply chains in the scope of the Act.

The Fairtrade Producer Standards and Fairtrade Trader Standard require compliance with minimum and development requirements that are designed to counter modern slavery. As a certification system, Fairtrade is unique in not only having standards on production, but in also having standards to ensure that traders treat their suppliers fairly. The Fairtrade Trader Standard also encourages additional voluntary actions through which an organisation can respond to the risk of modern slavery.  

Standards can be used to not only enforce consequences for labour rights abuses, but to go one step further by creating an enabling environment which then reduces the likelihood that labour rights violations will occur in the first place.

One example is the Fairtrade standard on sexual harassment where not only is sexual harassment from both managers and workers forbidden, but furthermore producer organisations must also establish a sexual-harassment policy and raise awareness among all workers as to what constitutes sexual harassment.

This leads to an empowered workforce. I saw this first-hand on a recent visit to Gold Coast Fruits, a pineapple plantation in Ghana. The worker training that was led by the local Trade Union and supported by Fairtrade showed that both managers and workers had an impressive understanding of what qualifies as sexual harassment and the clear steps that they could take to resolve any situations if they arose.  

In order to create a truly sustainable industry, worker empowerment is fundamental. Anthony Blay, general manager at VREL, says: “Even when the workers have the best benefits, unionisation gives them a voice. It is important that they are heard.”

However, empowered workers do not come from a vacuum. The right conditions have to proactively be put in place so that workers have the capacity to negotiate with management or to work with unions. This means that in addition to standards which protect workers, investment has to be made in training and upskilling.

Going forward, Fairtrade is building on its extensive experience of developing transparency and development opportunities within supply-chains through certification to create tools which will support businesses in acquiring a deeper understanding of both their supply-chain needs and of potential hotspots.

As a result, businesses will be better equipped to manage the social, economic and environmental effects of their operation, gaining a competitive advantage by not only deepening collaboration and consistency within the supply-chain but by additionally building trust with the consumer base.

 

Produce Business UK welcomes letters to the editor and other input from the industry. If you wish to respond to an article on Produce Business UK or join the conversation on any industry issue, please send your thoughts to [email protected]

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