Beneath the ‘Fair Trade’ Label, Union-Busting Lurks

4:35 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(dierken / Flickr)

Originally posted at In These Times

Since the 1990s, an unprecedented–but sometimes uneasy–alliance of activists and industry has tried to braid together business and humanitarianism under the label of “fair trade,” a system of standards aimed at injecting ethical checks into the sprawling global trade structure. Today, fair-trade branded coffees, skincare products and designer chocolates are hot commodities. But beneath the label lie ideological tensions over what “fair” means.

According to the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), the fair-trade certification system is riddled with loopholes that enable corporations to suppress labor rights and union activism. The ILRF’s new report focuses on the Seattle-based Theo Chocolate and its fair trade certification body, Switzerland-based Institute for Market Ecology (IMO). According to workers interviewed for the report, a campaign to form a union affiliated with the Teamsters in early 2010 at Theo’s Seattle factory was met with discrimination, intimidation and anti-union propaganda.

A campaign to discourage unionization would not be unusual in a typical U.S. workplace, but the ILRF has called out Theo Chocolate for simultaneously deterring unionization in its workplace while publicizing itself as a “fair trade” brand. ILRF also criticizes Theo’s much-touted partnership with the IMO in a certification system designed to ensure compliance with fair trade standards—its Fair for Life certification program. The ILRF’s report grew out of its work with the Teamsters to help Theo workers complain to the IMO about the management’s alleged anti-union actions.

According to the ILRF, in early 2010, a group of Theo workers sought to form a union to address problems they had discussed among themselves, including “safety issues in the factory, short notice shift and furlough changes, untenable workloads, low wages… and suspicion of wage discrimination against non-English speaking workers.” In the end, the report says, 19 out of 30 eligible workers signed cards affirming their approval of union representation. In a company like Theo, with a brand built on a hip, youthful image of global social responsibility, workers might well have expected that such organizing would be welcomed.

Instead, according to the report, Theo’s management fought to keep out the union through tried-and-true pressure strategies, including hiring a consultant to aid with union-deterrence efforts. One psychological tactic described in the report was painting unionization as an act of grave disloyalty:

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