Fair Trade: A Necessity
By Maryam Akhtar

January 18, 2012

In the past century, trade has been conducted under corporate expansion that undermines social and environmental conditions through the exploitation of labour and resources. The transformation of developed countries into consumer-based societies has caused individuals influenced by these regions to expect the market to produce greater numbers of cheap products at the cost of increasing poverty and unsustainable conditions for the labour producing such products.

To better understand how labour is exploited under conventional trading such as free trade (not to be confused with fair trade), the example of women working in Nicaragua’s Free Trade Zone (FTZ) can be taken into consideration. In 1991, clothing factories funded by the Word Bank and the Inter-American World Bank were constructed in the FTZ of Nicaragua to create 37,789 new jobs by 2001. This led to women being informally hired to work at the factories where they were often abused or harassed and given low wages that were not sufficient for them to meet their basic needs in spite of working for at least 13 hours per day. Even though the installation of factories created jobs for these women, their standard of living was worsened as they were abused and were bound to stay in poverty instead of being empowered.

Similarly, diamond cutters hired by world’s largest diamond company De Beers have largely been underage illegally employed children in India. Children are valuable to De Beers for their sharp vision which helps them make finer and smaller cuts on diamonds. Profitable for De Beers, but heinously unfair for the workers, instead of going to school children are forced to work in factories with unsafe diamond wheel cutters where their eyes and lungs are exposed to diamond dust, and where their legs and arms are susceptible to being caught by the cutting wheels. Not only do such conditions disable children’s eyesight by the time they reach their twenties, but they also show how De Beers is not made accountable for its crimes. It is on the bases of countless examples like these that an alternative trading scheme must be globally put into place.

Fair trade is an alternative method of conducting trade which can potentially replace consumer-capitalism by improving the livelihoods of impoverished producers, mostly found in developing countries. Being a market-based social movement, fair trade has encouraged consumers to be informed about where the products they purchase come from and whether producers are paid adequately for their work. As opposed to conventional trade, fair trade ensures that producers have greater access to the market so that the need for a connector between producers and consumers/retailers is diminished. This approach allows producers to retain a greater and deserving share of the revenues generated from the exchange of goods.

Since consumer capitalism is based on the exploitation of labour and limited resources, it is bound to face perils in the form of economic crises. The lack of justice in the production process necessitates that fair trade actively competes against conventional trade by becoming more organized. This has been done through the formation of a network of organizations named FINE and which comprises of the following:
1) Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO)
2) International Federation of Alternative Trade (IFAT)
3) Network of European Workshops (NEWS!)
4) European Fair Trade Associations (EFTA)

The responsibility of consumers lies in identifying products that have been approved by the organizations listed above as having been fairly traded, and purchasing approved products over ones that do not specify how justly they were manufactured or produced. Fair trade is not merely a philanthropic theory but an active approach towards promoting development opportunities for disadvantaged producers, especially women, indigenous groups and children. It is in the hands of consumers to control the demand for the types of products they want to see on market shelves, and can make a difference by increasing the demand for fair trade products already available in the markets such as coffee, tea, rice, bananas, mangoes, cocoa, cotton, sugar, honey, fruit juices, nuts, fresh fruit, quinoa, herbs and spices, footballs etc.

The rampant exploitation of humans should no longer be tolerated, and the economy must stop resorting to capitalist mechanisms to promote growth and development. Instead, fair trade should be treated as a solution to promote the standard of living of producers and as a way to end unjust practices.

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