Poverty, too, is a form of abuse…

On February 26th, while Oxfam and the wider aid sector slipped mercifully out of the headlines and knuckled down to the long haul of exorcising their demons and rebuilding the trust of their supporters, Fairtrade Fortnight began.

For those who have suffered at the hands of powerful men and have finally felt heard, and for all women, I hope this leads to redress and to greater safety and respect at work.

For those who believe everything they see in the media, it will be a break from the sense of shock and betrayal at the relentless onslaught of revelations of misconduct in a sector that exists to end suffering, not to create it.

And for those who know (most of) the complex, messy truth behind the media headlines, it will be a break from the sense of being under a sustained and deliberate attack (even if a small part of it may be justified).

So why should we care about Fairtrade Fortnight? Compared to these horribly serious issues, what’s so important about a cheery logo on a chocolate bar or a pack of teabags?

Because, my friends, it’s all about power.

Men who sexually harass or take advantage of women in any sector are abusing positions of power. And as affluent consumers we wield far more power than we perhaps realise. But we’re not affluent, I hear you cry. Yes we are – we may not be billionaires like those mentioned in Oxfam’s inequality report – but compared to the legions who produce our food, we really are.

And every time we go grocery shopping we have the power to make a choice. A choice that will directly impact on the women and men – and sometimes children – who produced the food we’re buying.

I don’t make this comparison lightly. Poverty, too, is a form of abuse.

Extreme poverty makes women and men vulnerable to harassment and humiliation every day of their lives, often with no escape and no hope of redress.

Poverty – and the powerlessness that goes with it – means having to work long, back-breaking hours, having to choose to send your child to work rather than school. It means not being able to afford treatment when you or your child is sick, or getting trapped into debt to pay for it.

It means being vulnerable to abuse – including sexual abuse – every day; abuse from those with the power to directly buy your products, to set the price for them, to give you work on their farms, and to supervise that work. And the power to lend you money when you or your child is sick.

And much of the food we buy is grown and processed by women and men in extreme poverty. Fairtrade certified food less so. It’s as simple as that.

The Fairtrade Foundation has put together a powerful short film challenging us to think how we would react if the inequality and exploitation in our food supply chains were up close and personal. It shows weary African children delivering food to nice, middle class homes. The homeowners are horrified and berate the children’s supervisor, who replies cheerily that “If you want low, low prices, this is part of the price”.

Think about it. When you can buy 45 teabags for 25 pence what impact do you think that has on the industry that produces the tea? Or the wages tea producers can afford to pay their workers, or their ability to provide decent housing, healthcare and sanitation?

Study after study has shown that Fairtrade certified farmers are usually better off, and have more say in what they earn and in how profits are spent. A study by the ODI, for example, claims “The evidence clearly indicates that certified producers have benefited from higher prices through Fairtrade certified sales, during periods of low conventional market prices.”

As Sandra Joseph, a banana farmer in the Winward Islands so powerfully put it, “Without the intervention of Fairtrade we would be fighting a losing battle. Fairtrade is our last best chance, our choice, our future… bananas are finished without Fairtrade.”

In the spirit of transparency, I must tell you that this is not the full picture. Fairtrade is not perfect. There are some circumstances, in the exponential complexity of this global trading system that we are all caught in, where Fairtrade has failed so far to lift the poorest out of poverty.

Nevertheless, I am a strong believer in the idea that offering farmers a stable price, access to markets, technical support and a premium to spend on the community has to be better on the whole than leaving them defenceless to the ferocity of global market forces.

And I do believe that Fairtrade can and has helped to even up the power imbalance a little (and sometimes a lot) so that thousands of women and men could escape extreme poverty and live more dignified, empowered lives. (Incidentally, Fairtrade was founded in 1992 by a group of organisations, including Oxfam.)

This year’s Fairtrade Fortnight message is “With Fairtrade we have the power to change the world every day”.

So please, let’s not abuse our power. Let’s use it for good.

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