Friday, June 06, 2008

Reconciler's Fair Trade Panel discussion

Last night the Social Action Committee of Reconciler as the Social Justice League of Edgwater put on Doing Justice in the Global Economy: Fair Trade, a Panel Discussion. On the Panel was Kelemwork Bayu, who worked in a fair trade shop in Kenya and now resides here in the US. Dr. David Schweickart professor of philosophy at Loyola University, Chicago, and author of After Capitalism and Amy Ellison From Chicago Fair Trade, and Barry United Methodist Church.

The panel was insightful brining personal experience with Fair Trade, experience of working to expand Fair Trade outlets in Chicago, and a critique of capitalism, showing why working for fair trade is necessary.

Professor David Schweickart, began his presentation with an illustration of the income inequality in the US. Which illustrated that although capitalism has provided for great acheivements in technology and to some degree the lessening of poverty though it has the ability to eliminate poverty it has not done so but intensified and perpetuated great disparities in income and wealth. Schweickart, sees an alternative to Capitalism which he calls a democratic economy that has 4 key institutions: 1) Democratic labor, where firms are communities of workers who vote for a directive council that appoints managers, where there are no salaries but where what is earned is a true sharing in the profits of the corporation. 2) Public Capital, no more stock markets and other financial markets intended to get private savings into the economy, rather gain capital through taxation and distribute the capital tax through public banks for loans and capital investment in business and expansion. 3) Full employment which means the Government as Employer of last resort 4) Fair trade which he sees as including a type of protectionism he calls "socialist protectionism": as he sees it free trade is only free between nations of equal wealth. Tarifs on imports from poor countries actually benefits the poor countries especially if as he envistions those tariffs are returned to the country either directly to the industries or the Government of the country. The idea behind this is to ensure a living wage for workers in all countries and to prevent the fleeing of industry to markets where wages are lower.
Kelemwork Bayu presented here experience in a fair trade shop as a refuge in Kenya from Ethiopia. The fair trade shop not only provided her with the ability to provide for her own food clothing and shelter but also a work place that was a community and mutual support for the workers. Bayu emphasized that the community aspect of the fair trade shop was as important as what she earned, and is especially so for those who are refuges who have left home and left and lost family and don't have access to those communal networks in the place where they have come to survive. Her experience was one that fit into Schweickart's sense of cooperative businesses in terms of a business as a community of workers though from Bayu's description it seems that the running of the enterprise was not necessarily democratic, but I also may have misunderstood Bayu: I realize now that from here description I am uncertain how the enterprise was run.

Amy Ellison, talked about the formation and the activities of Chicago Fair Trade, as well as the principles of Fair Trade: Fair price, fair labor conditions, direct trade, democratic and transparent organizations, community development and environmental sustainability. At the moment the most accessible fair trade products are coffee, tea and cocoa, and most other products are generally sold in boutique type operations. The desire is to see Fair Trade become more widely accessible. However, according to Ellison that requires breaking into the existing distribution channels and that is difficult. but it has happened in places like the UK. Part of that is more people buying and seeking to buy Fair Trade certified products or at least products one knows to have been fairly traded, using the principles of fair trade but not yet certified as fair trade, since the certification costs money not all fairly traded products have the label, here Ellison encouraged us to use our discernment.

The three presentations were followed up by a good discuss and question and answer period. In that time Schweickart mentioned a company in Spain the Mondragon corporation that was begun in the Basque region of Spain and is an example of a cooperative enterprise that has been successful.

Questions didn't come to me last night, or at least not in ways I felt I could articulate for the discussion. An interesting point that was made by all was some sense that economics and our buying and selling should not ignore relationship and community. So, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are part of this overall idea of fair trade. While I get this and it sounds good to me, I am aware of the difficulty of working, maintaining communities and relationships I have established that are not directly economic. So, I am unsure what such an assertion means for me and how I should go forward. My life is full at the moment attempting to work within the communities and networks I have. Now this is coming from someone who has sought for at least 10 years to understand where my food comes from and other things I purchase and to do so in as just a way as possible. As long as I have known about fair trade coffee i have sought to purchase it, for nearly five years now I have participated in one or another CSA program. Schweickarts ideas are interesting but they do have statist elements that I'd have to look into further, but apart from the statist elements it seems that some of his ideas may fit into both libertarian and even some anarchist concepts and senses of how economy and government should be organized. or at least it seems to me that libertarians if they are democratic shouldn't object to the creation of cooperatives and democratic business enterprises, though they probably would not like any idea of a government subsidizing or encouraging such enterprises. Well those are my thoughts for now. It was a good a stimulating and encouraging panel discussion.