“Someone explain fair trade coffee to me,” my boss said as way of getting our weekly meeting started, “because it doesn’t make any sense to me.” There was a smattering of laughs and some grins from my co-workers. This is how all of our meetings started: with my boss asking us a leading question about an issue, not for the sake of learning more about it, but for the sake of a lead into mocking that thing.
“Well, it’s a way of ensuring that workers aren’t exploited for their labor…” one of my co-workers started hesitantly.
“What, like they’re slaves or something? They get paid!” My boss’s boss cut in. “All trade has to be fair trade, or else it isn’t trade!” He confidently asserts. There’s laughter and murmurs of agreement, some more condescending remarks about Chinese made clothes- despite most of our clothes coming from Bangladesh- and a statement about fair trade chocolate being “the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted, if that’s what fair trade does then they don’t deserve to be paid more.” Laughter. Derision. And moving on with our lives.
Now, I’m not going to go into all the ways that these comments are highly condescending and revealing of an incredible lack of empathy for the suffering of other people, and even not talk about the intentional ignorance my co-workers live in, but instead talk about power imbalances. See, the part that really bothered me about this whole exchange was when my boss’s boss said that people don’t engage in trade unless it is fair, non-coerced, and non-exploitative. It probably says something about the management of my company that they don’t recognize that not all trade agreements and exchanges are made equal.
If my boss approaches a client and says “I need you to sell me [product] at [price], and you will do so because I will buy ten-times more than any of my competitors,” the client will probably accept those terms, as our company has an advantageous position of being able to purchase in such quantities that the price reduction is covered- and more- by the quantity being sold. Conversely, if a smaller company said the same thing to the same client, but could not put up the same numbers as us, they would have a weaker bargaining position- they wouldn’t get the discounted rate. (Most likely.) This is something any businessman who is half competent knows, hell it’s something I know and I’m not even close to a businessman. Not all negotiations have equal power balance. So why doesn’t my boss get that this is true at any level, be it interpersonal or international?
The people of Bangladesh, or the government for that matter, can’t simply refuse to work until they get better pay. The corporations that are giving them their wages can and will move to another country that is willing to work for the wages they set. Why bother dealing with strikes and wage spikes when you can just move everything and setup shop somewhere friendlier to how you run business?
Of course, according to my boss, fair trade is just for ‘lazy brown people’ anyway so I can’t see why he would possibly want to be nice to them. It’s a wonder he didn’t call them a few racial slurs and tell them to just get a better job.
Why are humans allowed to exist?