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‘A fairer share’: strengthening workers’ voices through Fairtrade, the labour movement and socially engaged companies

‘A fairer share’: strengthening workers’ voices through Fairtrade, the labour movement and socially engaged companies

This article about how Fairtrade is working with Banana Link and others to deepen the value of Fairtrade and empowering workers is reproduced from www.fairtrade.net.

On International Workers’ Day, we celebrate the power that a unified workers’ voice can have to drive social change. This is the story of how an engaged Fairtrade business partner and allies in the labour movement worked with Fairtrade to catalyze important improvements for workers at a banana plantation in Cameroon, as part of the company’s efforts towards sustainable production and a better life for workers and their communities.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of people go to work growing and harvesting the bananas that make their way to markets all around the world.

Although bananas are the most popular fruit in western countries, worth €9 billion in exports worldwide, banana farmers and plantation workers only see about one to three percent of this value in their incomes.

Fairtrade strives to change this situation so that banana farmers and workers reap more benefits from their work. The Fairtrade Standard for Hired Labour mandates requirements for decent labour conditions, including workers’ rights, wages, overtime and leave protections, health and safety policies, and grievance procedures, among others.

Fairtrade believes that there’s a huge role for organized labour to play in improving working conditions and giving workers greater power to negotiate for a fairer share of the profits of the global trade in agricultural commodities,” explains Wilbert Flinterman, Fairtrade International’s Senior Advisor Workers’ Rights and Trade Union Relations.

But sometimes certification alone cannot achieve necessary social change fast enough, especially where workers historically have not had much of a voice.

This is why Fairtrade seeks to build additional programmes – in cooperation with companies, trade union and labour rights organizations such as Banana Link and the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) – aimed at deepening the value of Fairtrade and empowering workers.

One such collaborative partnership in Cameroon has been doing just that, for the benefit of workers on one banana plantation and serving as an example of positive social dialogue.

Cameroon: a divided trade union landscape

In Cameroon, bananas are the country’s fifth largest export, mostly grown on large plantations.

There is a national minimum wage, but it is low and is not updated often enough to keep pace with the rising cost of living. A number of trade unions have formed since 1992 when the government allowed them – currently 14 trade union confederations exist in the country – but they have historically not been united and have limited influence in the face of powerful corporate structures. In order to address low wages and improve working conditions, agricultural workers in the country desperately need stronger labour representation.

One banana plantation took up this challenge in an innovative way starting five years ago.

In 2012, Plantations du Haut Penja (PHP) was preparing to become Fairtrade certified – the first such banana plantation in Cameroon and the second largest in Africa after one in Ghana, owned by the same parent company, Compagnie Fruitière.

The situation at PHP was complex. Six trade unions were operating on the plantation, representing the company’s more than 6,000 workers.

This fragmented system meant that each union met with management separately on labour issues, taking up significant time and diluting the unions’ collective negotiating power.

One labour rights organization, Banana Link, had already been working with Compagnie Fruitière and learned about the impending Fairtrade certification at PHP. Alistair Smith, Banana Link’s International Coordinator, recognized the opportunity that certification presented.

We wanted to engage because we thought the benefits of certification may otherwise not be equitably distributed to workers,” says Smith.

Of course the plantation would have to comply with the relevant Fairtrade Standards in order to gain certification. But bringing the unions together would give workers a much stronger position than if they remained divided.

‘From competition to collaboration’

Banana Link first proposed the establishment of joint trade union ‘platform’, to be implemented in collaboration with Fairtrade and IUF. Compagnie Fruitière management agreed to this approach, recognizing the value of more efficient social dialogue and improved employee satisfaction for their business, as well as the obvious benefits for workers and their communities.

A saying in Cameroon is that one hand alone cannot tie a bag – meaning, we always need to work together,” says Antoine Lihan, director of human resources at the plantation. “Even before Fairtrade certification, PHP provided a space for social dialogue with union representatives. Thanks to this project and the new platform, our dialogue has moved out of ‘firefighting’ mode, and now proactively contributes to more harmonious relations that support the company’s development.

IUF trainer Guillaume Tossa started by conducting several visits with the six unions. Within three months, union leadership had agreed on the need for a joint platform, had written and adopted a charter including ten mutual commitments, and developed an organigram. Trainings were then conducted for union leaders and workers on topics such as basic working conditions and workers’ rights; dialogue and negotiation techniques; occupational health and safety; sexual harassment; and Fairtrade Standards.

These efforts culminated in the set-up of the ‘PHP Trade Union Platform’, the umbrella body representing the joint interests of all the trade unions operating in the plantation. The presidency of the platform rotates among the six trade unions every 12 months.

In this process, IUF played an important role in bringing the different unions’ representatives together, identifying the areas of joint work, devising a roadmap for action, and organizing training sessions.

The first meetings with the different trade union representatives were tense,” recalls Tossa, a national of Benin and expert trainer from IUF in West Africa. “We had the challenge of moving from a relation of competition to one of collaboration. Through dialogue and training, we were able to break the mutual mistrust. Some challenges still persist but nowadays the different unions reflect together, decide together, act together and report together. This gives them a much more powerful voice within the company. It’s the strength of social power.

Fairtrade and union organizing: extending impact for workers

Since the start of its development in 2013, the Trade Union Platform has made a clear difference for the workers at PHP, both in social and economic terms.

Aerial view of the PHP plantation. Photo © Compagnie Fruitière

For instance, the platform played a role in the elimination of the lowest category in the pay scale coinciding with a general wage increase in the company in 2015. PHP also increased the workers’ housing allowance from 3,000 to 8,000 CFA per month for temporary workers and from 5,000 to 8,000 CFA for the permanent workers. Another achievement was the improvement of the transportation facilities for workers, with the increase of the company vehicle fleet and the provision of a bus service for administrative staff living in the neighboring towns.

As required by Fairtrade standards and promoted by the platform, a health and safety committee and a women’s committee were also formed. Women’s employment actually increased at the company, following specific discussions about the social benefits of greater opportunities for women. The unions are also planning to work with the Fairtrade Premium Committee to clarify their respective roles so that workers can provide the necessary input to union leadership as well as to decisions about how to use Fairtrade Premium.

In addition, the stronger union presence is an accepted part of the dynamic between labour and management. Workers participate in ongoing union-related trainings two to three weeks per year.

Worker satisfaction and morale have also improved, resulting in fewer work stoppages, greater ‘social peace’ and higher productivity.

Plantations du Haut Penja has invested in and gained social peace, and also won improvements in productivity. That’s why we hope that the project continues, building on this win-win dynamic not only for the benefit of workers at this plantation but also for Cameroon,” explains Oscar Ngome Eboule, plantation worker and president of one of the unions.

Acting locally, engaging globally

The local unions, Banana Link, IUF and Fairtrade are also working on building connections with the global labour movement. This includes strengthening ties with unions in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, as well as further afield; in 2014, union leaders from PHP visited banana plantations in Colombia to learn more about collective bargaining strategies and health and safety issues, as part of engagement through the World Banana Forum.

The unions at PHP are also now active within the regional IUF African Banana Workers Network, which met in Cameroon in 2017 about the global value chain in bananas and how labour can have influence within it.

Looking ahead

Fairtrade sales are still a relatively small proportion of total sales at PHP, in part because they are not organic certified, which is the largest demand from Europe. Higher sales under Fairtrade conditions would translate into higher Fairtrade Premium Funds to be invested by the workers in projects of their choice. This highlights the importance of the role of retailers and consumers to push demand as a way to drive impact.

So while Compagnie Fruitière and Fairtrade organizations continue to build the market for Fairtrade bananas from this region, workers will continue benefiting from the improved labour conditions and negotiating power strengthened through this project. Where workers have a strong voice, both business and communities can thrive.