By Mary Beth Danielson
This Saturday, Dec 19, 8AM-2PM -- there will be a Mayaworks Sale at Wilson’s Coffee & Tea, 3306 Washington Avenue. Please come to buy some Fair Trade products created by Maya artisans. Every item you buy (from a large selection of weavings, pretty household things, beaded jewelry, purses, totes and more) is a product that will have to be replaced by a fairly paid worker in Guatemala, thereby doubling your holiday investment of care and kindness.
That’s my main point and message -- in case you’re too busy to read the rest of this.
Everything from here on out is “Why you should sometimes buy Fair Trade stuff.” The simple answer is that if you earn a paycheck - Fair Trade helps keep your paycheck plump, too.
Consider: My cousin recently knitted a handsome pair of blue socks for me. In a chipper conversation about the gift, I asked her how much the socks would cost if she included the price of the wool plus minimum wage for her hours of work. We cracked ourselves up when we realized I now possess $42 socks.
In this humor is the cockeyed truth of our global economy. Cheap goods are cheap because someone is being paid very low wages. In fact some say the current economic brouhaha is basically a worldwide adjustment of wages. This is because (duh) workers in other countries work for lower wages than Americans do. An article I read lately suggests that for North American workers to be competitive in our modern world, most of us should consider working for about 20% less than we do. This goes for everyone – from the CEO to the guy who sweeps his office; from the heart surgeon to the short order cook in the hospital cafeteria.
Yet here is how we Americans are already paving the way to lowered wages.
Do you shop for bargains? Of course you do. Who doesn’t?
Consider… Each time you buy a $10 shirt, shoes for $15, electronics at rock bottom prices – what you are saying when you put your credit card down is that $.50 - 4.00 per hour is a fine wage for adults to earn.
Keep this clear in your mind – cheap pay is one of the main factors your purchase price is low. Someone somewhere worked for pay varying between low and near-slavery.
Many of the things we buy are made by people working 60-90 hours a week for less than a dollar an hour in sweatshop conditions. Not every foreign factory operates this way, but many do. One of the ways manufacturers coerce people into these situations is to set up a factory in one unregulated country, then bring in “guest workers” from another very poor country. If the workers resist horrible conditions, their worker status is revoked and they are sent back to their own nation, often with no payment at all. It’s an ugly business, though it enables us to buy stuff for prices far below what they would cost if manufactured in the US. Like socks for a dollar.
The important thing, in the keeping of the wool over our eyes, is to gently assume people in distant places are not quite as human as we are. Maybe they don’t mind exploitation and fatigue as much as we would. They live closer to the equator so they don’t have to pay heating bills. If they don’t have a house, then they won’t need furniture. And you know, a lot of those people are just fine eating a minimal amount of the same starchy grain over and over and over again.
We are under economic duress. We respond by looking for cheaper goods, which creates a downward spiral that causes workers to earn too little to live decently. Which causes workers in the US to lose their jobs altogether. And which enables only owners and investors to get richer.
This is too simplistic, because this is a short article. But it isn’t wrong.
You know how to fight this?
Inform yourself. Look at the labels in your favorite clothes. Google working conditions in those companies. It doesn’t take long to discover too much. Join organizations that work for economic justice at home and abroad.
But you know what else you can do?
Buy less. Pay more.
Seriously. Very few of us can do this with every purchase - but as we can, make choices that value workers.
Instead of purchasing two $10 shirts, consider buy one for $30, treat it well and make it last. Buy some of the things you need for your life secondhand. Borrow, hand down, share.
Explore Fair Trade coffee, chocolate (did you know most non-Fair Trade chocolate is picked by children?), jewelry, household goods. Every time you purchase Fair Trade, you are saying that the world belongs to the people who make and serve and care.
Value your hard work by valuing the work of others.