by Julie Francoeur, Executive Director of Fairtrade Canada
The Coronavirus pandemic has turned society upside down. While many of us struggle to stay safe at home, there are others deemed essential, like the people who grow, harvest and deliver our food. We all rely on a safe, stable supply of food; isn’t it only right that we ensure the health and safety of those who make this possible?
On my first grocery shopping trip after the lockdown started in mid-March, in the initial stockpiling days, I remember the queue that started all the way at the back by the dairy section. As I looked around into the baskets of my fellow worried Canadians, getting ready to hunker down, I could see the frozen food, the canned vegetables, the biggest pack sizes of coffee. We were just beginning to reckon with the scope and scale of the Coronavirus’ impact in Canada. Behind the then new, and now ubiquitous plexiglass, the young cashier was suddenly more visible. I considered the other workers making my food possible, the people I couldn’t see.
Similarly, there are millions across Canada and around the world we rarely see who keep the engine of the economy going – in the fields, farms and packing houses. The hours are long, and the work is hard and often dangerous. The agricultural sector employs roughly 1.3 billion people worldwide and remains one of the three most hazardous sectors for work. This year, COVID-19 adds another layer of risk as farmers and workers enter the fields.
Even though these workers are deemed ‘essential’, many of them are not afforded the pay and treatment they deserve for putting their lives in harm’s way. Perhaps this is because much of their work remains hidden, and it has become all too easy for us to enjoy the fruits of their labour without considering the human, their family, and their community behind the work.
At times like these, flexibility is a must for employers, and health and safety for farmers and workers is paramount, if we hope to contain the impacts of COVID-19. At Fairtrade, we have put new guidance in place for Fairtrade certified organizations so that they can more quickly dedicate Fairtrade funds to minimize the spread of the disease – whether through purchases of face masks and protective equipment or hygiene campaigns.
In many of the countries and communities where Fairtrade works, local governments are underfunded or unable to adequately support the people there. Therefore, Fairtrade certified cooperatives and companies serve as pillars of the community, not just providing employment, but social services as well.
Throughout this crisis, we have seen signs of hope and solidarity across our system of 1.9 million farmers and workers. In Ecuador, where a 60-day health emergency has been declared, certified banana producers have created a ‘solidarity chain’ in their communities delivering food or donating bananas to the most vulnerable populations or providing assistance to those in need.
In Colombia, a group of 16 banana plantations have banded together to install a coronavirus diagnostic center in the region of Uraba where 700,000 people live. This dramatically shortens the time it takes for results to come in allowing health workers to more quickly contain the virus. Companies and cooperatives are also taking efforts to ensure the health and safety of workers, including mandatory handwashing every two hours, physical distancing requirements, and delivery of soap, antibacterial wipes, and other necessities to workers and their families.
Fairtrade has always been about connecting people. We believe that empathy, in the best case, leads to better treatment of farmers and workers, and results in respect for human rights. We also know that strong labour codes, freedom of association and collective bargaining are necessary to ensure our food heroes are always treated as such.
It’s clear that in the short-term, the coronavirus is an adversary to be reigned in, but in the long-term it will force us to reckon with our interconnectedness. This challenge represents a historic opportunity to stop leaving people hidden behind a product on the shelf.
This pandemic requires global citizens, people who think beyond borders. We have a chance to savor our food, and truly value the people who make it possible, whether in Canada or across the world. And we do that by ensuring the health and safety of farmers and workers, just as we wish for ourselves and our families.