Fairtrade Fortnight: Labour Councils can lead the UK’s public sector in supporting fair trade and union rights in developing countries
by Glenn Power, LCID member
International Development can start in our town halls. Fairtrade fortnight is a good time to review some sobering facts – compared to best practice in Sweden and elsewhere British public sector organisations are sadly ineffective at supporting fair trade and decent working conditions in developing countries. So far only a handful of councils have gone beyond the minimal actions necessary to achieve ‘Fairtrade town’ status; and hardly any organisations act to promote decent working conditions in the factories that make their staff clothing or ICT equipment.
LCID members can start changing this now (below is a contact who can supply you with a model policy motion to put to your council, university, NHS Trust, school or other organisation). The effort is worthwhile and necessary. Although globalisation has reduced poverty in nations like India and China, tens of millions of workers are exploited because they are replaceable and unprotected by trade unions or enforced legislation on (inadequate) minimum wages, working hours, and basic safety – due, primarily, to Western multi-nationals’ ruthless drive to cut costs.
Clothing and ICT equipment: Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza disaster underlined how shameful working conditions can be in the clothing industry, as has the recent suppression of trade unionists in Cambodia. MakeITfair research has exposed the endemic suppression of trade union rights and exploitation of temporary ‘contract’ labour in ICT equipment manufacturers, often with brand owners’ support. Combined the ICT and clothing industries employ tens of millions – particularly young women and rural migrants. Their quality of life could be radically improved for minimal cost, because brand owners’ profits are large, and wages are so low. Garment machinists, for example, only receive around 2% of a garment’s end price. The problem is the inequitable distribution of profits and power. Enabling vulnerable workers to negotiate affordable wage rises contributes to development goals as fundamental as access to education and health care, and reduces aid dependency.
Influence: Collectively the potential influence of Britain’s public sector is huge. In 2012 £648 million was spent through three central ICT equipment contracts alone – on computers, printers, and mobile phones etc. Spending on staff clothing/apparel can be significant too, especially in the NHS.
Effective policies for high risk manufactured goods: relevant contracts should require contractors and brand owning importers to uphold ILO conventions in their supply chains, by contract, evidenced by genuine factory audits. Public authorities should also reserve the right to arrange audits themselves, ideally collectively, to ILO standards, in collaboration with local NGOs or Electronics Watch – strategies that should be facilitated by DIFID under Labour along with detailed reporting. The NHS has taken some limited first steps in £multi-million contracts for surgical instruments, thanks to the BMA, as this short film illustrates.
Fair trade: catering contracts should ask for full named ranges of relevant fairly traded products in ALL (council) facilities, including school canteens and vending machines if relevant. Councils in South Wales have shown the untapped potential – there hundreds of schools are supplied with Fairtrade bananas and fruit juices as standard items, because councils asked contractors for them by name in tenders. Amazingly, most councils don’t.
What can Labour Party members do?
Ask your CLP, union, Co-op party, or council to pass a model motion. You can contact Glenn Power – 020 7515 7835 firstname.lastname@example.org for a fuller briefing, detailing what politicians and procurement officers need to know. It also provides resources such as tender wordings. Local authorities could also spread best practice policies to local Housing Associations, Universities, NHS organisations, and thousands of schools.
Wales and Scotland: LCID members in devolved nations could have a particularly significant impact by establishing best practice for the next Labour government to spread nationwide. But all Labour Party members can make a real contribution long before 2015, starting with our councils.