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8598: Curbing the abuses of global capitalism - The Observer (fwd)

From: Charles Arthur <charlesarthur3@hotmail.com>

Campaigners are learning to squeeze concessions from companies by hitting 
them where they hurt: their brands

Steve Tibbett
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 
Grand Marnier.

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 
nervous about.

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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