Wilbert Flinterman asks “What does it do for the lives of workers?”


by reece.vanbreda

Our Executive Director, Julie Francoeur, recently sat down with Fairtrade International’s Senior Advisor for Workers’ Rights and Trade Union Relations, Wilbert Flinterman. Among other duties, he leads Fairtrade’s work on the issue of Living Wage in supply chains and is Co-Chair of the ISEAL Global Living Wage Coalition.

They spoke about Fairtrade’s continued work around Living Wage and the impact of Fairtrade on workers’ rights. Here is an excerpt of their conversation.

Julie Francoeur, Fairtrade Canada (JF):      

You’ve been with Fairtrade for almost eight years now in your role; what are the ways we manage to ensure impact for workers in the supply chains where we work through fair trade?

Wilbert Flinterman, Fairtrade Internation (WF):

Ensuring impact comes in different degrees. Impact is achieved directly and indirectly. For instance, the Fairtrade Premium has driven impact directly, because of additional value passed on to workers through Fairtrade, they have been able to invest in housing, education, healthcare and other projects, increasing the welfare of workers and their communities.  In that respect, the Premium has been a very powerful instrument to drive impact. Other impact has been reached indirectly, as a result of Fairtrade’s public policy advocacy or the way we have positively affected the discourse around certain themes, for instance Living Wages in supply chains of food and non-food products. For instance, back in 2012, Fairtrade effectively lobbied the government of the Dominican Republic to afford legal status to migrant workers in the banana sector. We should not underestimate the power of discourse and the way Fairtrade has been able to affect the narrative in corporate social responsibility. I am thinking of the good work of my colleagues working in floriculture to persuade that industry to accept a minimum standard for wages. That also helped to begin a positive dialogue with the sector around Living Wage. In other cases, impact has been harder to reach, like in cases where structural barriers and local institutions affect labour conditions.  For instance, in India, the working and living conditions of tea workers are largely determined by an elaborate legal framework that dates back to the colonial days. Also, we have to be careful to attribute labour conditions to Fairtrade and only do so when we have conducted a base line assessment to measure progress. And still, other factors may be at play, besides the interventions Fairtrade has delivered. Although in most cases, there is no direct relation between the volume of Fairtrade sales and decent work, the revenue of business under Fairtrade terms definitely contributes to our leverage to influence existing labour practices at company level and even at sector level. [Author’s note: as an example, only 6% of Fairtrade tea is sold on Fairtrade terms, limiting our ability to drive impact for workers.]

JF:           It’s interesting, we obviously work in a system. Fairtrade doesn’t exist in a bubble and neither do the Fairtrade certified farms. A lot of the challenges that workers face are way bigger than what we can tackle alone as a system. I’ve seen really powerful partnerships that we’ve been able to build, sometimes working with unions, working with local governments, or field teams. Also more and more with companies. With certain companies that are interested in saying, “How do we tackle this particular issue around workers’ rights?” Or “How do we tackle getting to a living wage in the supply chain?”

How do you see the role of deepening our partnerships with companies to tackle some of these issues?

WF:        We need the contributions from the companies and other actors in the supply chain to improve conditions. That very much applies to the issue of living wage, for instance. Collaboration is very important. To me, in my work, the test of every collaboration is, “What does it do for the lives of workers? How is it going to affect their lives?” Collaborations help to align approaches of groups that have common interests. Particularly concerning the theme of wages in supply chains there is a multitude of actors trying to come up with solutions for more or less the same problem. First step is then to arrive at an agreement of fact so that everybody sings from the same hymn sheet, so to say. This was accomplished through the Global Living Wage Coalition for which Fairtrade planted the seeds. Together with other standard setters on the Coalition, we have managed to raise a broad commitment among organisations working in the area of sustainable agri-food chains to use a single Living Wage methodology developed by experts Martha and Richard Anker. Not having a single concept and methodology had stood in the way of companies accepting Living Wages as a goal to strive for. After acceptance of the concept had been realized, we were able to focus on implementation of Living Wage which is actually much more challenging.

An excellent example, I mentioned before, is the situation for workers in East Africa, particularly in those countries such as Ethiopia and Uganda where there’s no legislative minimum wage, but Fairtrade said, “We have to step in. We don’t like to take the role of the government, but this is so important that we cannot continue to certify under these local wage conditions”. That has basically helped to increase the base wages with up to 75%. That’s what we expect when this process is complete at the end of the road.

The support from international traders and local business associations was critical to make this work. Fairtrade has come together with industry in an open dialogue around wage improvement. Collaboration with industry can only be successful if predicated on the notion that improved labour conditions need to go hand-in-hand with sustainable enterprises and continued employment for the tens of thousands of workers in East Africa whose livelihoods depend on that industry.

JF:           I’ve always noticed working with Fairtrade plantations when I was working in Latin America, how some of the things that in Canada we take for granted as an employee or as someone working. What’s included in the Fairtrade Standards are not normal in many other places. Even things like having a pay slip that says how much you’re paid each week or every two weeks. Ensuring that you’re paid in cash and not in wine, for example, if you work in a Fairtrade winery. All those things that we see as small or just protected by law, the fact that you actually say, “Even though there are legal requirement in your country, sometimes they’re not enforced”.

WF:        Absolutely.

JF:           Having those discussions and saying, “How do we make sure that this happens? How do we make sure that we actually provide helmets and gloves to your workers”? Basic rights in health and safety, rights on non-discrimination. The power of those things over time has created a massive impact in some of the plantations we’ve worked with. I was always struck by how small some of those things were and how meaningful they were. If we take things like a pay slip for granted, but they really are not taken for granted in a lot of other places.

­WF:        We work in countries where governments and government agencies are often under-resourced. Where the labor inspectors of those countries do not have adequate resources to enforce the law, or where workers do not have sufficient access to the court system to claim their rights. That, of course, varies country by country. It is unfortunately quite common that rights exist in law, but not in practice. Particularly in agriculture, where workers are often poorly protected.

In a sense, Fairtrade operates as a backup of local authorities to make sure that basic rights and freedoms in the workplace are respected. That is certainly not a guarantee for perfect conditions but helps in many ways to generate better outcomes than otherwise would be the case.

Yet, we recognize that access to rights is better organized locally than through an overseas Fairtrade office thousands of kilometers away. A good reflection of that principle is a dialogue platform and dispute resolution mechanism for Peruvian banana producers and trade unions we established two years ago with important contributions from local and international partners. The dialogue platform has greatly helped to address grievances of workers and their unions and bring them on speaking terms with the farmer organisations.

JF:           Thanks for your work on this on the file. I know there are many challenges ahead of us to make sure that workers are impacted, especially as it applies to supply chain where we haven’t been able to sell as much on Fairtrade terms and there’s a lot of work still on your plate. Thanks a lot for your time.

WF:        I thank you and the Fairtrade Canada team for your hard work and the opportunity to share this.

Living Income Living Wage Workers Rights

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