[This is the final post in a 3 part series by guest contributor Natalie Armstrong, from Bachhara. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2]
Fair trade organizations are not perfect, nor do they claim to be. There is still much work to be done and there always will be. It requires continual development and ongoing reassessment. The key however is that fair trade organizations show commitment to the preservation of these principles.
Without a doubt, there is a clear energy shift when one walks into a fair trade community, especially when compared to factories of another kind or the surrounding slums they occupy. It is like breathing in fresh air, or lying in long grass on a lazy afternoon, enjoying the satisfaction of a wonderful day. This was my experience when I first visited the fair trade organization, Swallows Development Society.
Swallows is located on the shores of the River Ganges in the North West of Bangladesh. The first and obvious differences were immediately noticeable; its clean air, good living and working environments, real smiles, and a sense of community with a true respect for culture. There was also a sense of transparency and honesty, something not experienced in other business relationships in either Bangladesh or in India.
The village itself is primarily supported by the Swallows Development Society and they also provided my accommodation during my stay. As we made ourselves comfortable, I found myself alone for a moment on the balcony overlooking the village of Thanapara and the grounds of Swallows. As I sat watching quietly from my perch beneath the 4th floor, the laughter, smiles and chatter of village life filled me with peace. I took a moment to breathe in the goodness of that experience, and to give thanks for it.
Swallows Development Society, like many fair trade communities, provides a sustainable community life, free education and employment for the poorest untrained people in the area. It offers training, and development as well as financial and relationship support. Employees, in particular those at Swallows, are paid a base wage three times that of the current standard factory worker rates. It also empowers producers to enter into a dialogue of negotiation to include an agreement on their own rates per garment or handicraft on top of their base rate.
Swallows has set up a free daycare facility for the children of the women who work there, giving women access to their children throughout the day. These women, all of whom work in groups throughout the large, comfortable facilities are seen chattering, laughing and sharing on breaks while playing with their children. Free from ridiculous deadlines, they start at nine, finish at five and have an hour for lunch.
On one occasion when I was sitting with the women in one of the embroidery rooms discussing a design, a woman entered distraught and wailing. She was greeted by the group of women with support and love. Not understanding the reason for her pain, I also instinctively moved to her with love.
I later found out she was from the village and did not work at Swallow. She had approached Swallows for their domestic violence support, counseling and the free lawyers. She had been beaten and tragically burnt by both her husband and his brother. She was in severe physical and mental pain. It was while she was waiting to see a counselor that she had found friends in the room I was in. These women allowed her to sit and release her grief. This, even in a lovely community like Thanapara, was unfortunately not an uncommon incident.
This type of support, allowance and appreciation of individuals even sets fair trade organizations apart from what is considered ethical business. There is a commitment to support the culture and the dynamics of the community. It doesn’t disturb the natural flow of life, rather it embraces it.
This is almost completely devoid and lost in western organization. Wouldn’t it be a powerful transition to have this in our own work experiences? We can all learn from each other, and it is in the process of fair trade that we are able to share these valuable and powerful experiences.
Many of you might question that, were such allowances given, then how would this impact on production, business, and quality of the end products? Without a doubt, it is a concern that must be addressed; as a business partner with such organizations we have had to ask this of ourselves as well.
The west has extremely high standards, and for us to provide the best for the communities we work with, we need to ensure our products sell. To do that we need to ensure they arrive on time, within a budget (albeit a slightly larger one) and that they are of excellent quality.
It is mostly resolved in the planning. A fair trade business/partners’ time lines are much longer than competitive businesses working outside of the fair trade principles. This brings planning and development work ahead for us in the fashion industry by at least 6 months, and critical risk evaluation is a crucial step. It is not an option to interrupt the natural rhythm of village life for the pursuit of business; it is however a constant work in progress to align the natural rhythm of village life with that of the demanding expectations of the west.
Without forgetting the great and obvious shift, the majority of beginning businesses aren’t ethical, and they are certainly not transparent; rather they are unfortunately controlling and disempowering with focus on financial gains. I believe there can be transparent business, ethical behavior and conscious choice in all areas of business, and fair trade is helping businesses like mine use a platform to enact this.
My intention, which I share with many who now occupy this field of work, is to put people first in all of our decisions. We intend to bring you a product free of abuse, a transparent line of distribution, and find sustainable eco solutions at every opportunity. We are also committed to bring awareness on fair trade, and work with communities who are dedicated to the same cause. Our intention is always to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.
I propose this to those who have taken this journey with me, that the next time you are ready to buy, ask about the product you are buying, who made it, and if there is a fair trade choice. The more you ask your department store or corner shop and your favorite boutique about your fair trade options, the more you will be helping the world grow in a positive new and sustainable way. As more consumers demand this, more and more businesses will need to make the shift, and as the numbers grow so too will your choices as well as your awareness.
There will come a day when we won’t need to make choices between an ethical, socially responsible product or service and a destructive one, because we will all have come to a place of consciousness. When that happens, all of our products and services will be offered within that framework of positive thought and benefit to all.
[This is the 2nd in a 3 part series by guest contributor Natalie Armstrong, from Bachhara. Click here for Part 1]
At a deeper level I knew I was also facing my own demons in how I had lived my life up to now. I felt the hell these people lived in was, in some fashion, created by me due to my years of non awareness along with my years of denial that these things existed in our world. Indeed, if we must be painfully honest, the denial we all co-created in our ignorance…
Through my tears, I noticed a young family standing on a mound of rubbish across the water. They were looking out across the river beyond where they stood, over the depleted, grey, heavy land steeped in endless poverty. They struck me as having strength of spirit borne of these circumstances, a tenacious hope of human spirit that this place could never defeat. And it was this vision of inspiration that kept me going that day.
I choose to share my story with you, not as a horrible insult to the senses to make you feel guilty, but more as a window of awakening into awareness. It is true we are unaware of how deeply savage, dark and expansive this reality is, and it is our human nature to turn away, shield ourselves from it if at all possible. We want to leave the ugly reality hidden about this aspect of our human family’s needs. However, if we are painfully honest, it is time, indeed past time; to come into conscious awareness and do something about it.
Making a living, let alone in creating a product so easily thrown away, should never come with such a price tag as this. And this is where Fair Trade comes in.
To me fair trade is about informed decisions, rebalancing the energy exchange, equalizing and replenishing. It gives people joy, not subjugation and it empowers the consumer and the producer. Fair trade also suggests a more conservative approach to consumerism and most definitely a more informed one!
When you sip at that fair trade coffee, you can feel the difference. You have affected positive change not only for producers in developing countries. You are making a demand on businesses to follow your decisions.
The WFTO, Fair Trade Federation, or your countries’ fair trade organizations, offer you a stamp of assurance that the choice you have made to buy one product over another is indeed an informed and aware one. It assures you that the producers as well as the products you have purchased have been through a stringent process to reach accreditation.
Fair trade products are the products of integrity and beauty. They are products imbued with happiness and joy, and when you buy them, you take that same experience with you. And you realize you made all of this happen, through your decision to buy with an awareness of conscience. Perhaps you helped secure a workers’ future and brought happiness to his heart. And now this happiness fills you. And you find yourself smiling with a warm heart.
There are many ways in which World Fair Trade Organizations work with producers and businesses to ensure the products labeled with fair trade accreditation are full of satisfaction, smiles and joy. Here are the ten fair trade practices each organization is assessed against for accreditation:
Standard One: Creating Opportunities for Economically Disadvantaged Producers
Poverty reduction through trade forms a key part of the organization’s aims. The organization supports marginalized small producers, whether these are independent family businesses, or grouped in associations or co-operatives. It seeks to enable them to move from income insecurity and poverty to economic self-sufficiency and ownership. The trade supports community development. The organization has a plan of action to carry this out.
Standard Two: Transparency and Accountability
The organization is transparent in its management and commercial relations. It is accountable to all its stakeholders and respects the sensitivity and confidentiality of commercial information supplied. The organization finds appropriate, participatory ways to involve employees, members and producers in its decision-making processes. It ensures that relevant information is provided to all its trading partners. The communication channels are good and open at all levels of the supply chain.
Standard Three: Trading Practices
The organization trades with concern for the social, economic and environmental well-being of marginalized small producers and does not maximize profit at their expense. It is responsible and professional in meeting its commitments in a timely manner. Suppliers respect contracts and deliver products on time and to the desired quality and specifications.
Fair Trade buyers, recognising the financial disadvantages producers and suppliers face, ensure orders are paid on receipt of documents and according to the attached guidelines. An interest free pre payment of at least 50% is made if requested.
Where southern Fair Trade suppliers receive a pre payment from buyers, they ensure that this payment is passed on to the producers or farmers who make or grow their Fair Trade products.
Buyers consult with suppliers before canceling or rejecting orders. Where orders are cancelled through no fault of producers or suppliers, adequate compensation is guaranteed for work already done. Suppliers and producers consult with buyers if there is a problem with delivery, and ensure compensation is provided when delivered quantities and qualities do not match those invoiced.
The organization maintains long term relationships based on solidarity, trust and mutual respect that contribute to the promotion and growth of Fair Trade. It maintains effective communication with its trading partners. Parties involved in a trading relationship seek to increase the volume of the trade between them and the value and diversity of their product offer as a means of growing Fair Trade for the producers in order to increase their incomes. The organization works cooperatively with the other Fair Trade Organizations in country and avoids unfair competition. It avoids duplicating the designs of patterns of other organizations without permission.
Standard Four: Payment of a Fair Price
A fair price is one that has been mutually agreed by all through dialogue and participation, which provides fair pay to the producers and can also be sustained by the market. Where Fair Trade pricing structures exist, these are used as a minimum. Fair pay means provision of socially acceptable remuneration (in the local context) considered by producers themselves to be fair and which takes into account the principle of equal pay for equal work by women and men. Fair Trade marketing and importing organizations support capacity building as required to producers, to enable them to set a fair price.
Standard Five: Child Labour and Forced Labour
The organization adheres to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and national / local law on the employment of children. The organization ensures that there is no forced labour in its workforce and / or members or homeworkers.
Organizations who buy Fair Trade products from producer groups either directly or through intermediaries ensure that no forced labour is used in production and the producer complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and national / local law on the employment of children. Any involvement of children in the production of Fair Trade products (including learning a traditional art or craft) is always disclosed and monitored and does not adversely affect the children’s well-being, security, educational requirements and need for play.
Standard Six: Non Discrimination, Gender Equity and Freedom of Association
The organization does not discriminate in hiring, remuneration, access to training, promotion, termination or retirement based on race, caste, national origin, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, union membership, political affiliation, HIV/Aids status or age.
The organization provides opportunities for women and men to develop their skills and actively promotes applications from women for job vacancies and for leadership positions in the organization. The organization takes into account the special health and safety needs of pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers. Women fully participate in decisions concerning the use of benefits accruing from the production process. The organization respects the right of all employees to form and join trade unions of their choice and to bargain collectively. Where the right to join trade unions and bargain collectively is restricted by law and/or political environment, the organization will enable means of independent and free association and bargaining for employees. The organization ensures that representatives of employees are not subject to discrimination in the workplace.
Organizations working directly with producers ensure that women are always paid for their contribution to the production process, and when women do the same work as men they are paid at the same rates as men. Organizations also seek to ensure that in production situations where women’s work is valued less highly than men’s work, women’s work is re-valued to equalize pay rates and women are allowed to undertake work according to their capacities.
Standard Seven: Working Conditions
The organization provides a safe and healthy working environment for employees and / or members. It complies, at a minimum, with national and local laws and ILO conventions on health and safety.
Working hours and conditions for employees and / or members (and any homeworkers) comply with conditions established by national and local laws and ILO conventions.
Fair Trade Organizations are aware of the health and safety conditions in the producer groups they buy from. They seek, on an ongoing basis, to raise awareness of health and safety issues and improve health and safety practices in producer groups.
Standard Eight: Capacity Building
The organization seeks to increase positive developmental impacts for small, marginalised producers through Fair Trade.
The organization develops the skills and capabilities of its own employees or members. Organizations working directly with small producers develop specific activities to help these producers improve their management skills, production capabilities and access to markets – local / regional / international / Fair Trade and mainstream as appropriate. Organizations which buy Fair Trade products through Fair Trade intermediaries in the South assist these organizations to develop their capacity to support the marginalized producer groups that they work with.
Standard Nine: Promotion of Fair Trade
The organization raises awareness of the aim of Fair Trade and of the need for greater justice in world trade through Fair Trade. It advocates for the objectives and activities of Fair Trade according to the scope of the organization. The organization provides its customers with information about itself, the products it markets, and the producer organizations or members that make or harvest the products. Honest advertising and marketing techniques are always used.
Standard Ten: Environment
Organizations which produce Fair Trade products maximize the use of raw materials from sustainably managed sources in their ranges, buying locally when possible. They use production technologies that seek to reduce energy consumption and where possible use renewable energy technologies that minimize greenhouse gas emissions. They seek to minimize the impact of their waste stream on the environment. Fair Trade agricultural commodity producers minimize their environmental impacts, by using organic or low pesticide use production methods wherever possible.
Buyers and importers of Fair Trade products give priority to buying products made from raw materials that originate from sustainably managed sources, and have the least overall impact on the environment.
All organizations use recycled or easily biodegradable materials for packing to the extent possible, and goods are dispatched by sea wherever possible.
[This article will be continued tomorrow with the 3rd post in a 3-part series.]
[This is the 1st in a 3 part series by guest contributor Natalie Armstrong, from Bachhara.]
Fair trade is a term you have likely heard before, and you may have a good idea as to what it is about. You have probably even tasted the benefits at one time or another. However, let us investigate just what fair trade actually is.
Fair trade, as laid out by the World Fair Trade Organization, is explained in the following terms:
“a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South.
Fair Trade organizations have a clear commitment to Fair Trade as the principal core of their mission. They, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising, and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade. They can be recognized by the WFTO logo.
Fair Trade is more than just trading: it proves that greater justice in world trade is possible. It highlights the need for change in the rules and practice of conventional trade and shows how a successful business can also put people first.”
This valuable information is an excellent summary of fair trade, but it hasn’t yet provided us with the ‘on the ground’ representation of what is, or what is definitely not the result of fair trade. This is where I’m stepping in!
Having seen and experienced both sides of this issue first hand, I will recount some important ‘what is not fair trade’ signs, an easy task for me since my experiences are based mostly in Bangladesh and India. Both countries are renowned for their child labour and corruption issues, with the majority of their populations subsisting on under a dollar a day. Having stated this, however, I will also share with you my observations of the stark and obvious difference and impact fair trade makes on populations.
The fashion industry is rife with unethical behavior. Therefore, when I first arrived in India to start my own ethical fashion label, I decided not only to connect with ethical producers, but to take the back street tours of factories to discover and observe the situation for myself. What I found was expected but far more wide spread than I was previously led to believe.
After all the years of abuse from external and internal power, countries like India and Bangladesh were so rife with child labor as well as modern forms of slavery and poverty, that it took my breath away. And although it was all there for me to see, I knew of course there was far more hidden that I was not witness to. My thought was, “if this is what I am exposed to, then I shudder to think what the ugly truth might be that is left hidden in the shadows?”
I decided that I had to be involved in its change. It was then, although without my full understanding of the movement that my relationship with fair trade over ethical trade began. Recently, I began working in Bangladesh, and although I thought I had seen and experienced a good deal in India, Bangladesh proved to be a far worse horror.
Bangladesh is the most overpopulated country in the world. The country won independence after a long and bloody conflict in 1971, and is today a land embedded in shocking poverty and corruption. In India, at least, there are rays of hope, whereas in Bangladesh, the light has nearly been snuffed out. As I struggle to identify it, I can only imagine how the Bangladeshis must be feeling as a desperate people in their equally desperate land.
Within days of arriving, my business partner Amanda took me to the slums of Dhaka. She had been working in Bangladesh for over two years, and felt I was ready to see the worst it had to show me. Amanda knew I had travelled through India extensively, and this previous experience would hopefully help to prepare me. It was also her way of making sure I was fit to work for these people, perhaps like a test I needed to pass. Truthfully, I had no idea what was coming; that I was about to face some of Dhaka’s darkest secrets.
June 14th 2010 is a day engraved forever in my memory. Taken to the slums of Islampur on the edge of the Buriganga River, I found myself in a putrid hell, a never ending pit of vile stench that would make even the strongest constitution quake and retch. It was clear I was not prepared at all…
A queasy nausea began to fill my whole body. Subtlety failing me, I looked up from my retching to ask my companion, “Why am I being shown this?”
Amanda pointed out that I was probably ill from the chemical fog belching from the leather factories, in front of which our rickshaw had stopped. This fetid air, polluting the slums which are home to thousands upon thousands, was the air these residents breathed and lived in every day. It was then I realized just why I was there and why I had to see this.
We were in the area in Dhaka, where most of the leather factories operate. Amanda pointed them out as we continued along in a rickshaw. As we proceeded, she began relaying her experiences inside one of these factories where she had worked the year before.
Amanda explained that those ‘lucky’ enough to get employment inside these leather factories were as young as five years of age. Children, she said, slaving away entombed inside the bowels of these dark, hot factories. Their tiny hands were perfect for cutting the smaller parts off the slaughtered cows.
These children were often the only members of their family to earn money, Amanda informed me. The parents of these children sincerely felt that there was no other choice for them or their family to stave off starvation. Sadly, these parents were likely correct in their painful assumption.
As vile effluent poured out of the factories directly into the air and water around the slums, we noticed children playing in the thick stench of rubbish in the water that was clearly being used as a dumping ground. Some jump from one pile of rotting plastic to another, without ever touching the water, while others further out actually swim in it. This is all they have ever known in their short, innocent and unprotected lives.
Official statement by the Bangladeshi government declares that an adult Bangladeshi fashion factory worker, on average, can earn approximately 1,660 taka (US $23.70) per month. But in reality it will often be far less. This amount is not enough to cover the basics of fresh, clean water, soap, appropriate housing and food for one person, let alone entire families.
Consider the fact that one Bangladeshi slum room can cost between 2000 and 2500 taka (or US $28.70 – $35.90) per month in rent. When factory workers’ wages are less than this per month, one can see just how unethical behavior keeps these people just where the corrupt authorities want to hold them. The reality is that whole families are forced to survive on these wages; they must live in the most unhygienic of environments, such as dirt floors, open sewers, barely enough clothing, no hygiene products and seemingly no end of misery in sight. Children are forced to beg on the streets, work in factories or pick up rubbish to recycle for a pittance, just to help out.
Most factories, especially the clothing factories in Bangladesh, are located on the fringes of slums like these. They survive by hiring the cheapest and most desperate labor to keep the machines rolling. Sickened by their behavior, I saw this clearly happening while I was there in their hell watching them.
“Those factory owners,” I cried in anger, “are accomplices to sheer evil!” And then I wept.