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8598: Curbing the abuses of global capitalism - The Observer (fwd)
From: Charles Arthur <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Campaigners are learning to squeeze concessions from companies by hitting
them where they hurt: their brands
Sunday July 8, 2001
The Observer (UK Sunday newspaper)
Before the Nike 'swoosh' and McDonald's golden arches, there were already
global brands. Brands with style, substance and a little dust. Brands like
Almost everyone recognises the distinctive brown bottle and grimy wax seal,
even if they can't quite remember what Marnier calls 'its light amber tones'
and 'excellent lingering after-taste' after raiding, in desperation, the
back of the drinks cabinet.
The after-taste for workers toiling on Grand Marnier's orange plantations in
Haiti each day is definitely bittersweet. Workers who handpick the fruit
have for years earned poverty wages and suffered respiratory and skin
complaints because of intensive contact with acidic orange spray. They pick,
peel and grate bitter oranges for shipment to the company's distilleries in
Until relatively recently, the workers, many the descendants of slaves,
earned less than the £2 per day laid down as a minimum by Haitian labour
Conditions on the plantations were horrendous. There were no toilets or
first-aid facilities, contravening Haitian labour laws. There was no clean
drinking water, and an absence of washing facilities meant workers had no
way of removing the citric acid from their skin.
But last July significant concessions were won from Marnier. The company
agreed to a 55% increase in wages, an improvement in conditions and official
recognition of the workers' union. Following months of wrangling and
unfulfilled promises, a combination of local and international pressure
brought the management to the negotiating table.
As an example of how charities and campaigns can challenge unethical
business practices and achieve positive change, the Grand Marnier case is
Various groups, including War on Want and the Haiti Support Group, launched
an international campaign to get the company to negotiate properly. Many
people wrote to the company, and it received some punishing publicity.
Marnier was, by all accounts, taken aback by the pressure. Trade unions on
the plantation also pushed harder. The combination was irresistible.
The lessons for the company, workers and campaigners are significant. In
short, pressure works, and there is no substitute for proper negotiation.
Without the combination of local trade union persuasion and international
campaigning, little would have changed. A constructive dialogue between the
workers and company representatives came from this amalgam of influences.
Now that conditions have improved, all agree they are in a better position,
though some issues remain unresolved.
The national and international context is also important. Haiti is the
poorest country in the western hemisphere. Unemployment is severe. This
means trade unions are relatively weak and wages startlingly low. Companies
sometimes think they can get away with poor practices in poor countries, but
these days there is nowhere to hide. Trade unions and campaigners are
casting the net far wider than they used to and companies are finding that
good industrial relations are a better bet than old-style confrontation.
Labour rights are also becoming central to many international and
human-rights agreements. Companies that refuse to negotiate are swimming
against the tide. If there is going to be globalisation, most agree, it has
to be a humane process, with responsible business as a cornerstone.
Rémy-Cointreau, the much larger French-owned liquor company, has also
received bad publicity because of poor wages and conditions in Haiti. But it
has responded less sympathetically. Cointreau maintains that it pays and
treats employees well, but eyewitness reports suggest otherwise.
Perhaps the difference in how Cointreau and Grand Marnier have reacted is
instructive. At a time when brands are valued above everything, in a
relatively small company like Grand Marnier the pressure hurts more. All
that it has is its name.
Cointreau, far bigger and less reliant on one brand, perhaps feels it can
ride out the bad publicity. But this is imprudent. The sort of issues that
it is being associated with are just those that western consumers are
In March this year War on Want took a delegation of British trade unionists
to meet some of their Haitian colleagues. Rehana Azam, northern region
organiser for the GMB union, was appalled by what she saw: 'One guy had
worked all his life but still couldn't afford to build a home of his own,'
she said. But she also recognised that some improvements had come from
One of the key problems she saw was the gap between what owners say and what
local supervisors do. 'Owners need to have more direct communication with
workers and not just rely on their local management,' said Azam.
War on Want has been supporting the efforts of a Haitian legal-aid centre -
Batay Ouvriye, or 'Workers' Struggle' - to help tackle the poverty wages and
improve working conditions on the plantations.
Such steps are important if workers are to be equipped effectively to argue
their case. But companies need to get on the ball, too. Socially responsible
business must not just be about public relations, but about real progress.
The workers on Haitian plantations, many of whom have devoted their lives to
producing for these companies, deserve more than a sprightly rebuttal and
fine words in the company annual report.
• Steve Tibbett is senior campaigner for War on Want.
Forwarded by The Haiti Support Group
- solidarity with the Haitian people's struggle for justice, human rights
and participatory democracy since 1992.
Web site: www.gn.apc.org/haitisupport
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