Fairtrade: In Solidarity with Trade Unions

As millions of workers around the world celebrate Labour Day, let us take a moment to acknowledge the importance of trade unions in our rapidly changing world. Despite the challenges they face, trade unions are as needed today as ever before. At Fairtrade, we stand by their side and work hand-in-hand with them. We’re convinced that without trade unions, workers around the world would not be able to exercise their rights in the workplace to the fullest.

The idea of Labour Day originates in the struggle by U.S. workers in the late 19th century who went on strike and took to the streets to demand an eight-hour workday. They recognized that by coming together, working men and women could collectively advance their demands for a fair and just workplace.

The following century saw a rapid increase in the ranks and influence of trade unions in industrialized countries. Workers’ rights, trade union rights and civil rights were significantly strengthened as a result, particularly in Europe. For good reason trade unions refer to themselves as the people who brought you the weekend.

Nowadays, sadly, trade unions in the Global North are struggling to maintain their membership as their achievements are often taken for granted. In the Global South, trade unions are struggling too, but for different reasons. Just browse through the annual ITUC Global Rights Index and you’ll see that in many countries workers don’t have the freedom to organize and trade unions can’t operate without interference or repression.

Discrimination against trade unions affects workers worldwide. But the impact is harshest where people live in poverty and have no other job options. Rural workers in developing countries are particularly vulnerable. According to an ILO report, agricultural workers are often barred from associating and bargaining collectively. Rural workers are at particular risk because they aren’t adequately protected by law and mechanisms to promote their collective voice are insufficient.

Another challenge for developing countries is a lack of resources. Trade unions are grassroots-based, independent worker organizations, dependent on worker contributions. It is difficult to collect union dues from workers who need every penny to make ends meet. Many unions in the South simply aren’t equipped to be effective counterparts in collective bargaining negotiations with well-resourced, powerful employers. This partly explains why, in sectors like agriculture and textile manufacturing, wages have remained very low.

Fairtrade International stands in solidarity with the trade union movement. Our mission is to improve the lives of workers and we are convinced that this cannot be accomplished without strong worker organizations to represent them.

For these reasons, Fairtrade has been working with the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF); the labour rights NGO BananaLink; Oxfam, and other members of our Workers’ Rights Advisory Committee to develop global strategies and social standards to improve the lives of wage workers.

Fairtrade collaborates with trade union organizations at a policy level, and locally on the ground. In Malawi, for example, in partnership with IUF and Oxfam, we helped to prepare the national Plantations and Agriculture Workers’ Union for collective bargaining. Last year, with our support, the union negotiated a collective agreement for tea sector workers, securing a 24 percent wage increase.

In Ghana and Cameroon, we’ve been working with IUF, BananaLink, and local unions on workers’ rights training, understanding collective bargaining agreements, and collaboration between unions. Earlier this year, we brought together Ghanaian unions and employer representatives to discuss ways of improving wages in the banana sector.

George Dunu, farmer at Volta River Estates Ltd. (VREL), a Fairtrade certified banana plantation in Ghana.

In Peru, in collaboration with Latin American union federation, COLSIBA, Fairtrade helped form a structure for social dialogue and dispute resolution between banana producers and the local union, a major step towards labour peace in the sector.

In the Dominican Republic, with BananaLink and national union, FEDELAC, we have supported the development of two new trade unions in the banana sector, which has seen no union activity since the 1990s. These are just a few examples of how we are actively supporting trade unions on the ground in the South.

Frederick Douglass, the 19th century statesman and former African-American slave, captured a key principle for social justice when he said: Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

On Labour Day, together with our friends in the labour movement, we celebrate the courage of working men and women to organize themselves and demand their fair share in the workplace.

By Wilbert Flinterman
Senior Advisor Workers’ Rights and Trade Union Relations
Fairtrade International