Think Fair Trade is just an overseas Issue? Think again

December 17, 2012

With outsourcing, the risk of terrible working conditions and extremely low pay occur all too often. Find out what domestic groups are doing to fight this on our own turf.

Manufacturing is a global sport - it’s common for raw goods, materials and labor to be sourced overseas. With outsourcing, the risk of terrible working conditions and extremely low pay for farmers and workers occur all too often. Growing awareness of the issue is demonstrated through a huge increase in sales of products containing the fair trade certification. In early 2012, Fair Trade USA saw a 75 percent increase in sales. But what about here in the US, in our own backyard?

Farm labor remains among the worst paid, least protected jobs in the country. With few or no benefits, hard, back-breaking work, and no job security, farm workers barely make $12,000 a year and are excluded from overtime pay and collective bargaining. While we continue to focus on working conditions overseas, we need to be more cognizant of what is happening at home.

US farm workers have been fighting back, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is working unrelentingly to change conditions here in the US. The CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout Florida. The majority of their approximately 5,000 members work for large agricultural corporations in the tomato and citrus harvests and travel along the entire East Coast following the harvest in season. They are calling their movement the “Campaign for Fair Food,” and it begins with a simple premise: diagnose what makes farmworkers poor, and redirect those forces in ways that reduces farmworker poverty.

Here in the US, the heart of the matter is the volume purchasing practices of today’s retail food giants, which creates downward pressure on produce prices at the farm level. Grocers are able to provide produce at cheaper prices for their customers, but this means that farmworkers earn lower wages.

Retailers, while focusing on fair trade overseas, need to assure their customers of fair practices domestically. Tap into what the CIW are doing as well as the Domestic Fair Trade Association, whose mission is to “promote and protect the integrity of domestic fair trade principles and practices through education, marketing, advocacy and endorsement.”  Demand these products and raw materials for your store and products – and use this information as a marketing tool to educate consumers about the issues.

Gerardo Reyes, member of the CIW told the Lempert Report back in June of this year, “This century's shoppers – the shoppers of the Information Age – are buying food plus the information behind the food: its nutritional value, its safety record, and, increasingly, the story of how the workers who produced the food are treated…The inevitable collision between the modern technology informing consumers' decisions and the antiquated labor conditions in this country's farm fields is already starting to produce energy for progressive change in the agricultural industry, and those retailers that understand this new reality and get ahead of it first will thrive.” The Lempert Report wholeheartedly agrees.