Trouble brewing in the canteen

Tom Wall on fair trade

In 2001, the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) was the first union to pass a resolution endorsing the Fairtrade Mark. It called on union offices to promote Fairtrade products because they benefited poor farmers. Many dutifully started stocking their vending machines with ethical snacks and beverages. But when the union's members pointed out that Fairtrade companies rely on non-unionised labour, the TGWU quickly reversed the policy.

"We are still very much in favour of fair trade," says Brian Revell, national organiser for food and agriculture at the TGWU, "but it is a little bit strange for a trade union to be promoting Cafedirect coffee, which is processed in a non-unionised factory in Germany, at the expense of Nestle or Kraft, where we have good agreements, good pay and conditions and good employers."

It is true that none of the main UK-based Fairtrade companies - such as Cafedirect, Clipper, Green & Black's or Day Chocolate - is unionised. All of the big food multinationals, on the other hand, such as Nestle, Cadbury's and Kraft, have signed union recognition deals with the TGWU. But Sophi Tranchell, managing director of Day Chocolate, believes the objections are spurious. "They just don't want to address the inequality of the present trading system, which really discriminates against the people who are growing the primary products," she says. "People in the T&G should not become the mouthpieces of big companies, because that is not the job of trade unions."

Revell insists he is not in the business of promoting any product over another, because he represents workers across the food sector in the UK. But he believes trade union organisation is the key to addressing the inequalities of the global trading system, as it gives workers the power to hold companies to account and secure decent pay and conditions. "If you've got sustainable workers' organisation, you are not dependent upon external monitoring," he says.

In 2001, unions in Central America signed an agreement with Chiquita (formerly United Fruit), one of the largest fruit producers in the world, and now plantation workers enjoy better pay and conditions. Elsewhere unions are addressing child labour in tobacco production and slavery in cocoa production. But is union organisation always appropriate? Trancell argues that unions have little to offer cocoa farmers."These people own three-hectare farms, they sell their commodity and they are completely at the whim of the price people are willing to pay. How do they plan on unionising them?" she asks.

Underpinning this dispute is a clash of cultures and tactics. The labour movement draws on a rich tradition of collective working-class action, whereas the fair-trade movement is more individualistic and middle class. Consequently, while unions emphasise workplace organisation, Fairtrade companies make more of personal ethical choices and the power of supermarket shoppers.

Yet there are positive signs among unions that are willing to set aside their differences. The Public Services Union is committed to promoting Fairtrade products; the shop workers' union Usdaw encourages its members to buy Fairtrade where family finances allow; and the public sector union Unison is supporting Fairtrade products as part of its campaign against global poverty.

Even Revell and Tranchell recognise that their respective traditions have a part to play in the struggle against global poverty and neoliberalism. Tranchell says she is on the side of trade unions, and Revell admits to drinking Fairtrade coffee in the union canteen. Perhaps it is time for a rapprochement?