SEATTLE, Washington — The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown global supply chains and the lives of the workers within them into disarray. Even at the start of this crisis, more than 80% of companies reported supply chain disruptions, including world-wide transportation restrictions. However, it is the farmers and workers at the base of these global supply chains — the majority of whom live in the world’s poorest countries — that will be most harmed by lost sales from fulfillment delays. Here is how Fairtrade is helping producers during COVID-19.
Preventing Wage Exploitation and Child Labor
At a time when manufacturers are growing desperate, it is easy to turn a blind eye to labor exploitation. The economic downtown has incentivized companies to cut costs wherever they can, and children are often the most willing to accept meager pay. This, of course, can quickly turn into working for no compensation in the case of forced labor. In India, for instance, a labor union working with Oxfam visited 14 tea estates, only to discover that none of them had paid their workers since the country entered lockdown status on March 25, 2020.
That is why the work Fairtrade International is doing is critical to ensuring companies provide fair compensation to their workers. Fairtrade International’s guidelines prohibit the use of child, forced and bonded labor. However, the organization recognizes that exploitation in these forms remains pervasive within its global supply chains.
Speaking with The Borgen Project, Mary Linnel-Simmons, Director of Marketing at Fairtrade America, pointed to agriculture, specifically cocoa in West Africa, as an industry particularly vulnerable to these labor issues. “Crops are going to rot unless you pick them. And if most farmers have one harvest, they get one payment a year, so it is a really big deal for them to get their crops timely harvested, processed, and sold because that might be their one payday.” She further emphasized how economic desperation can drive producers to not “see any other options” and “maybe not make the choices that they would make if things were different.”
Fairtrade audits all its operators for child labor exploitation, but the need for social distancing and limited transportation has made these abuses even harder to detect. Furthermore, not all agricultural producers are Fairtrade certified; those that are not may not be subject to any reviews of labor conditions whatsoever.
Solutions That Give Producers a Voice
Nevertheless, auditing is limited as a solution because it addresses only the effects, not the causes of labor exploitation. These include lack of access to quality education, weak enforcement of labor laws, gender discrimination and war. Poverty remains a key player in the perpetuation of these core causes. In response, Fairtrade has focused heavily on immediate economic relief provisions through setting up two funds: the “Fairtrade Producer Relief Fund” and a “Fairtrade Producer Resilience Fund.”
Between them, the two funds have raised roughly 7 million U.S. dollars. This money will go to both immediate relief provisions and building resilience in producer communities to protect against the longer-lasting impacts of COVID-19. What sets these funds apart from similar efforts, however, is that Fairtrade plans to allocate them through its global producer networks based in the developing nations it is targeting. Fairtrade “relies heavily on these localized networks to provide on the ground support” since it “works with about 2 million or so farmers and workers,” said Linnel-Simmons.
Even though in-person communication is difficult at the moment, Fairtrade has continuously involved these producers, who make up half of the general assembly at Fairtrade International, through video chatting platforms such as Zoom. Linnel-Simmons emphasizes that keeping these channels of communication open ensures that “it’s not just decisions being made in the global North, then affecting people living in the global South.” The producer-allocated funds give those who lack agency within massive global supply chains the choice to decide which efforts will most drastically improve their quality of life — whether that be building emergency medical facilities or paying suspended wages as part of keeping local businesses running.
The Importance of Community-Wide Solidarity
Labor exploitation is nothing new. Yet, COVID-19 has exacerbated this existing problem to unprecedented levels. The ease with which the pandemic threw global supply chains into disarray shines light onto the fragility of the current system and the deep, yet often overlooked, connection between consumers and the workers who produce the world’s goods.
But that connection goes both ways. By purchasing Fairtrade certified products, consumers can help ensure a livable wage for the producers at the backbone of these supply chains. As Linnel-Simmons puts it, “if we want to keep enjoying these products that we might consume every day, a cup of coffee, a banana, sugar in your tea… we need to support the people growing them because often they are living on a knife’s edge in terms of if they can make it through to the next day.”
– Christine Mui