A few years ago, I had the privilege of travelling to India. The cultural and culinary differences between the UK and India are plain to see, but I was struck by the sight of large shopping malls full of familiar, Western brands. The Indian people were buying their own products, made in India, but labelled as Western goods. And it was foreign companies who were making the profit.
David Jonathan shares his success in taking action to challenge the exploitation of trade by business giants.
It’s a sign of how Western Empire and colonial legacies continue to exert their influence. Modern globalization has initiated a new era of economic slavery and oppression. I thought such horrors would have been consigned to history in these enlightened times, but history sadly has a habit of repeating itself.
Trade and exploitation
Some businesses have exploited people and entire regions over hundreds of years, and India is a prime example. Paving the way for the British Empire’s dominance in India, the East India Company, a London-based business that traded from 1600 to 1870s, at one time accounted for half of the world’s trade.
Colonialism has become a hot topic in these days, and rightly so, and I still hear people try to defend the process with statements like “at least Britain gave India the trains.” It’s true that infrastructure has been a benefit to Indians, but it’s also a fact that during British rule, Britain squeezed up to $45 trillion out of India.
Taking advantage of developing markets
In 1991, India sought support from the World Bank and IMF (the International Monetary Fund) to get through a financial crisis. Unlike other countries, where the presence of gold in their own banks was enough of a guarantee for loans, the government instead had to deposit India’s gold reserves in other countries’ vaults.One of the loan conditions stipulated the liberalisation of the Indian economy. This required India to open itself up to foreign entities seeking to control its industries, including state-owned enterprises. The plans acknowledged that the most vulnerable in society would suffer as a result. Despite the risks and its vast resources, India was in no position to refuse this deal.
Western companies saw the opportunities which unfolded, and under the guise of creating jobs, benefited firstly from India’s cheap labour, then exploited India’s consumer market. It was heralded that they would boost the Indian economy, but even with a fast-growing economy and levels of poverty reducing, it is outrageous how much of the wealth created benefits individuals and organisations based in more developed countries.
It has been deeply unfair, and you could even say that the UK’s current foreign trade policies are doubly unfair when people who migrate to the UK, after having been exposed to such economic systems, are accused of ‘taking over British people’s jobs’ and abusing the system!
What can I do about it?
I felt challenged to make a change in the system, but in the face of such mighty powers defending the status quo, I often found myself too small. Then I remembered my Sunday School teacher explaining David’s victory over Goliath, and teaching us, “Don’t run away from the giant; instead run to the giant.”
Faith and hope ought to be steeped in the conviction that, regardless of how bad things may be, a new story is waiting to be created and God is expecting us, individuals, congregations, communities and civil society, to champion that hope of a fairer future.
To tell that new story, my first initiative in 2003 involved a tug-of-war game played in Luton town centre! Many passers-by and shoppers joined in and discovered how poor nations can never win when trading with wealthy and powerful nations.
Next, we organised culture-specific workshops, highlighting economic injustices in parts of the world reflected by the immigrant population of Luton. Hearing about the impact of Fairtrade in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, the continent of Africa and the nations of the Caribbean got people interested in launching and supporting the Making Luton a Fairtrade Town campaign.
The Fairtrade Foundation enables farmers to sell their good quality, sustainably sourced and ethically produced products for a fair price. It helps them to support their local communities and produce their products in a way that respects and nurtures the environment. We invited a Caribbean banana farmer called Tokkie Bowman to Luton to share his story, and his message was clear:
“When you buy Fairtrade, you buy a little bit of humanity too.”
In 2007, a multi-faith Fairtrade Steering Group was launched. We organised countless school assemblies, community workshops and public events. Through lots of hard work, Luton could eventually boast having the UK’s first Fairtrade Hindu temple, the UK’s second and third Fairtrade mosques, a Fairtrade synagogue, and most churches and other faith and community groups supporting Fairtrade. We even saw two Fairtrade cafés become established.
Justice for producers
People in Luton were beginning to realise that fair trade wasn’t charity: it was justice. It was seeking to give people what they deserve and to take an active role in reducing worldwide exploitation. Luton was finally launched as the first super multi-faith and multi-cultural Fairtrade town in November 2011.
Harriet Lamb, at that time the Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation (UK) said: “Congratulations to Luton! Your tireless campaigning has won the hearts and minds of consumers and businesses. With your help, we can tip the balance in favour of some of the poorest producers in the world and we hope that we will see similar successes across the UK and beyond.” The Fairtrade Foundation awarded us a national Outstanding Achievement Award in 2012. Zafar Khan, Chair of Luton Council of Faiths, observed: “The GRASSROOTS programme has helped create and sustain a platform for people to act together on issues of concern, and share from our respective faith traditions a passion for justice.”
This is my story. I did what I could do. I and many others look forward to hearing your story, so we can continue inspiring one another to do what we have still got to do to make things fair for everyone.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist
JPIT has commissioned a series of blogs exploring racial justice, particularly at its intersection with other issues of justice and peace. To see other blogs in this series, click here.