Fairtrade a little closer to home...
In February, we underwent our annual review from “Investors in People.” IIP is a voluntary certification scheme for companies who want to be recognised for the way they treat their staff and we were keen, after our difficulties last year, to make sure that we were still recognised as a good employer. We're delighted to announce that we passed with flying colours!
The auditor was fascinated by how we work: we are in the process of abolishing our hierarchy and replacing it with a self-management process. This structure ensures that we are all “the CEOs” of our own roles. We don’t have performance reviews, management chats or the dreaded “one to ones”. We don’t have to wait for permission to do stuff and we don’t have to see if the boss is in a good mood or not before presenting a newidea. Our auditor wanted to understand how this works with lots of questions that started with “But what if...” and each question was grounded in the assumption that if you let people just get on with their work, then something will go wrong, or somebody will go out on a limb and do something stupid. Oh, we of little faith!
In the early days of Fairtrade there was an enormous debate, often passionate, usually heated, between two wings of the movement. Some campaigners insisted that fair trade was all about relationships with producers
and that relationships were based on trust, not control. Their desire was for premium moneys to be sent to producers without any catches or clauses. Others felt that some kind of auditing or certification was necessary to ensure that corruption or misappropriation of funds could be avoided. It was important, they argued, to know how the money had been spent and whether it was properly accounted for.
The argument was never really resolved philosophically but as layers of standards, auditors, certification and “courts of appeal” were introduced, the pragmatists appeared to win the day.
Over the years I have had many opportunities to witness farmers discuss what to do with their premium monies. Sometimes their choices seemed quite banal to me; a safe place for migrant workers to lock up their belongings when out working in the fields; a toilet with a lockable door; a bus stop with a shelter for the monsoon months. Sometimes the projects appeared enormously ambitious right up to building medical centres or even roads to ensure that produce could get to market on time. But whatever I thought, the choices were made by the farmers, their families and their communities and were important to them. When I began to understand the context – or had the opportunity to stand outside in a monsoon downpour, for example, - then the choices they made began to make perfect sense. In fact, they became obvious – I just didn’t always get them from my initial standpoint.
I remember a young woman in India who used to ask her father who the “men in black cars” were, who used to regularly visit the tea estate where she lived. Her father had to ask the estate manger and was told they were lawyers. The girl wanted to know what lawyers were and did, and so her father had to go and ask the estate manager again. When he came back and explained to her what a lawyer was, she decided that she was going to become one to help her family. Her poor father was instructed to request financial help from the premium fund for her education, and this was duly given. She told me this story while she was visiting her family on the estate – she was revising hard for her final law exams at a major university. Her ambition was to return and help her village on the estate ensure their communal rights were ring-fenced. I had no idea how fragile their existence had always felt. She did, and she understood what she needed to do to protect her family.
One of the great principles of fair trade is respect. If we respect farmers, respect their families, respect their understanding of what they need, then the magic happens.
We are doing the same here at Traidcraft. We are learning to respect each other’s abilities and focus. Not surprisingly, a lot of magic is starting to happen, and it is wonderful to watch. I have been following the youth climate movement with great joy and exhilaration and one of the many things I have learnt from watching young, inspired and passionate campaigners is their understanding that just as traditional corporate and government structure have gotten us into this climate mess, it is unlikely they will have the flexibility, skills or awareness to help get us out. Their demand for a citizen’s assembly – a democratisation of power - is downright scary, but it’s what we fair traders have been preaching for 40 years. If only we trusted our own values enough to implement them in our own workplaces and our own communities.
Incidentally, WFTO principle #1 is “Opportunities for disadvantaged producers”. Perhaps we should add “...and everybody else as well.”