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Fair Trade and Women's Power

The 12th Annual International Women’s Day Celebration was today at Coffman, presented by the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and the Human Rights Program at the U of M. I attended the workshop session entitled Empowering Women Around the World through Fair Trade. There were three speakers representing different organizations that support women workers internationally. According to their handout, some of the main ideas of fair trade are “creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers,? “dealing fairly and respectfully with trading partners,? “gender equity,? and “developing producers’ independence.? These goals have had enormous impacts on liberating women economically.

Becky Flory represented North Country Fair Trade, an apparel business. She noted the irony of women being exploited in the apparel industry, when the primary consumers of their products are other, more privileged women. Becky spoke some about the history of women being oppressed as workers, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the Northeastern colonies to outsourced factories threatening to leave a given area if their female workers attempt to challenge the system in defense of their rights. North Country trades with women factory workers from Mexico who are now being encouraged to speak out against offenses. Becky made the comparison of a $37.99 UCONN sweatshirt for which 18 cents goes toward wages, versus a North Country t-shirt, for which 6% of the cost goes back to the workers.
Mindy Ahler-Olmstead spoke about 10,000 Villages, a retail outlet that sells products from 113 groups in 32 countries. She gave the example of Rosa, a Latin American woman who was able to upgrade from a tin shack to a brick house as a result of their business transactions. These women have also been able to employ others, generating a ripple effect. These women gain power and value through their businesses that society might not otherwise allow them to have. They use wages to pay for food, education for their children (one woman’s daughter had dreamed of becoming a nurse but the family did not have the money to send her to school), healthcare, and housing. These are such basic needs, and it is extremely meaningful that these women can provide them for their families. Mindy spoke about a woman in Bangladesh whose husband left her. By obtaining a job at Beaverton Paper Factory, she was able to become literate, obtain loans, and rebuild her parent’s home after a flood.
Kristen Johnson works with Global Mamas, a brand name that encompasses about 50 individual coops around the world. She spoke primarily about women in Ghana. The individual nature of the coops means that each woman has ownership over her particular product and can ensure that it is of good quality, but the brand name umbrella provides solidarity for these women to recognize that they are part of a progressive community. These women generally earn 40% of wholesale, compared to less than 1% in sweatshop settings. The structure of the organization is very democratic and involves the women in decision making.
I spoke more with Kristin after the program about the way that economic self-sufficiency influences power relationships for these women. She said that many of these women are now the primary income generators for their families, which has a huge impact on their confidence and dignity. Her organization has noticed increased confidence in the way these women conduct themselves soon after joining the program. She said a women may not flaunt their economic role in the family for her husband’s sake, but between the two of them, they know who’s paying the bills. In the future, Kristin would like to see these women becoming more involved with their communities and exerting other kinds of power by becoming involved in politics.