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Fair Trade is Not Always Fair
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Fair Trade is Not Always Fair

Fair trade is something most of us invest in. Right now, I have Fair Trade coffee, tea and chocolate in the pantry, and a beautiful Fair Trade basket sits next to my bed. Whenever possible, I choose to invest in products that help to make a difference somewhere. By advocating the payment of a higher price to the people doing the work, theoretically Fair Trade raises social, economic and environmental standards.  Fair Trade helps artisans, craft workers, farmers and cooperative producers in developing countries make better trade deals. At its best, it promotes sustainability.

There are many snafus in the Fair Trade practice. It is not a perfect system. There is documented corruption, no guarantee child labor was not used, and a shortage of Fair Trade import studies. However, despite this taint, I hopefully invest in Fair Trade products in the off chance that the money I’m handing over will improve the life of someone, somewhere. 

Until recently I never thought about how many of those Fair trade products got to me. As it turns out, quite a few arrive by ship. Often the crew members come from developing countries themselves. The plight of many of these crew members is unconscionable, and in many cases, downright inhumane.  The flag the vessel is registered under often defines how far the owners can abuse the crew. Countries like Liberia and Panama execute very little control over what the owners are allowed to do, or not do, but the United States of America does not allow physical abuse to seamen sailing under an American flag (18 USC 2191-Sec 2191 Cruelty to seamen).

It is common for owners who employ seamen from developing countries to take advantage of the situation. The crewmen from developing countries are forced to sign on for much longer than their officer counterparts, who are usually European or American. For some shipping companies, two years without a break is the norm. Under their contract, these untrained seamen are given cheap food, cramped quarters shared with other men, and poor pay. They work in dangerous conditions. Often they have contracted with a head hunter for a large fee that are under the false assumption can easily be paid back, only to discover that their actual wages don’t come close to the promised note. They find themselves in a horrid situation, in debt, with no recourse. 

I read of one example where an untrained North Korean crew signed on for two years, for $7,200, a place to sleep, all the food they could eat, rubber shoes and all the gloves they needed. They were expected to work fifteen hour days, seven days a week. If you do the math it comes out to about .66 an hour.

The same system is used by most cruise ship companies. They hire largely untrained crews from Third World countries to work at salaries and safety conditions that would be intolerable to Americans and Europeans. They also serve the crew cheap food while they watch platefuls of rich, decadent fare tossed over the side, and produce rot in storage. Men are sometimes bunked 8 to a room like sardines, and they are expected to work about 100 hours a week. Crewmen are not always paid what they’re promised. When they complain they risk being fired, jailed in the ship’s brig or deported in handcuffs.

The employers argue that they provide one of the few chances for thousands of Third World peasants and urban poor to improve their lives. Cruise owners say it would be too costly to improve working conditions on ships and that any attempt to improve working conditions would cause them to flee popular cruise destinations.

It’s heartbreaking that the world is full of so many atrocities. It’s heartbreaking that we have to speculate about something as grassroots as Fair Trade. There are reputable organizations that distribute Fair Trade, organizations that pride themselves on trying to make the world a better place for everyone. Research will shed some light on the situation, but you can’t always google before making a spontaneous purchase. Personally, I will still invest in fair Trade. I am, however, going to try to make sure that the products we consume on a regular basis like tea and coffee come from a highly regarded source, and try to trace how they arrive on my door step.

Who’d think doing the right thing would be so difficult?




*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.



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  1. Melissa Nott
    Melissa Nott
    Great article. This is a topic I don't know much about. Thank you.


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