We must unite Fairtrade and trade union movements: Fairtrade CEO

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

'Surely both movements are based on organisation to deliver justice for smallholders and workers through collective empowerment,' says Fairtrade International CEO
'Surely both movements are based on organisation to deliver justice for smallholders and workers through collective empowerment,' says Fairtrade International CEO

Related tags Trade union

We must follow the example of Sweden and bring together the two “very noisy” movements of workers' trade unions and Fairtrade, the CEO of Fairtrade International Harriet Lamb has said.

Speaking at the same opening plenary session, Fairtrade and Trade Unions: Two Movements, One Purpose?”​, at the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) conference, Magdalena Streijffert, secretary general of Fairtrade Sweden, said the Swedish branch had 46 member associations of which 11 were trade unions. LO founded Fairtrade Sweden and was still its partial owner.  

Streijffert said one tangible example of how this partnership had worked was the creation of 17 ‘Fairtrade cities’ in Sweden, something she said had only been made possible by pressure from trade unionist members of their steering groups.

Harriet Lamb told the audience of Fairtrade and trade union representatives this Swedish model could be applied on a global scale.

Fairtrade International

Fairtrade International now comprises 19 national Fairtrade organisations covering 24 countries.

“The question is how can we take that level of close collaboration that you’ve achieved here in Sweden to all our work throughout the world, because it’s absolutely clear that we do share a vision and a mission and we need to think about how we can better support each other to make progress. Surely both movements are based on organisation to deliver justice for smallholders and workers through collective empowerment.”

Lamb said this was challenging given both movements were “very noisy and very democratic”​.

Peter Gaynor of Fairtrade Ireland spoke of his branch’s strategy to align with the trade unions, something he called a “new departure point”.

He said that the movements were united by common values and beliefs. “All of us I’m sure believe that all human beings are born equal. Human beings are equally deserving of human rights and respect. That sounds like that’s so kindergarten that we don’t need to say it. But of course we do need to say it because in our working lives and in our day-to-day jobs we butt up against big business and all kinds of problems and difficulties.”

Ron Oswald, general secretary of trade union network IUF, said despite political pressure and even violence, movements like Fairtrade and workers' unions would prevail because of their strong sense of values, which would “transcend greed and the markets”​.

However, he added that legitimate differences had also come up in this process, citing Fairtrade International’s decision to stick with its original structure that aimed to help poor smallholders, whilst opening its certification doors to major players like Nestlé.

Legitimate differences

“We all carry a shared responsibility to do all we can to make this work. But if we share a common purpose, why on occasions do we feel the need to raise legitimate concerns, sometimes from us to Fairtrade and sometimes from Fairtrade to us?”

He said honest further debate behind closed doors was needed, adding: “I personally think the Fairtrade model has been challenged by the transition it’s made from its original model, its original mission – largely, as I always understood it, one focused on small and disadvantaged producers – to a model seeking to certify far greater volumes in areas where production is often linked to producers who cannot really be described as disadvantaged. I never think of Nestlé​ or a major plantation owner as a disadvantaged producer.”

He also raised the importance of building relationships with smallholders through the affirmation of local connections, without which he said it was impossible to truly gauge the situation on the ground as workers would be reluctant to talk openly with an outsider.  


Fairtrade Ireland’s Gaynor said: “We recognise that for the prior 20 years we have been working in a smallholder way of working. […] It’s taken us a long time to learn that if we want to work with and alongside workers and trade unions then we need a completely different way of working.”

Discussing the issue of on-the-ground relationships, Lamb said: “We know that is something we haven’t given enough attention to until now in Fairtrade.”

She said neither the unions nor Fairtrade held the magic solution, but added it was key that both sat down and discussed such sticking points, or “hot spot” ​issues, together.

She used the analogy of an onion, saying addressing issues around fair trade was like peeling away a layer only to discover several more beneath.

A history of unionisation

Lamb said they had already seen real success stories in places like Colombia where unions on banana plantations had been highly organised in securing a living wage for workers. She said workers could secure the changes that were important to them with the help of both unions and Fairtrade.

She cited another example in the Dominican Republic where unions and Fairtrade had worked together to lobby the government to improve the situation of illegal largely Haitian migrants by issuing passports and the appropriate documents. “By working together we have begun to make some progress.”​ 

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