Caught in a Dirty Business

Babelmed – 06/12/2006

This year’s edition of the Taste the World fair trade festival to be held on Saturday, 9th December at St. James Cavalier in Valletta, will focus on the injustices that plague the cotton and textile industry in general and urge consumers in Malta to voice their concern and choose those products that respect workers and the natural environment.

The highlights of this year’s fair trade festival are a seminar on the cotton industry between 10.00am and 1.00pm, including the screening of a documentary film on the situation of garment workers in Cambodia, and a concert starting at 8.00pm featuring violinist Simon Vella, oud player Walid from Sudan, and African music and dance. Entrance to all events is free of charge.

Fair trade products, ranging from foodstuffs, handicrafts and clothes, to musical instruments and CDs of world music will be on sale throughout the day from stalls manned by the volunteers that run the Maltese fair trade shop L-Arka.

On Friday 8th December, the fair trade activists will also be showing the film The Take which follows Argentina’s radical new movement of occupied businesses, groups of workers who are claiming the country’s bankrupt workplaces and running them without bosses.

“Courageous Hearts without Retreat”

The morning seminar will focus on the cultivation of cotton and the manufacture of textiles and clothes in the South of the world. In many communities, unsustainable practices in the production of cotton have a strong negative impact on people’s lives and on the natural environment. In developing countries workers are often underpaid and the spraying of pesticides causes serious breathing and other health problems.

The theme “Cotton: Caught in a dirty business” highlights the need to establish fair and sustainable practices that would benefit both the workers and the local communities, and the natural environment. This seminar, which is open to the general public, is funded by the “Playing Fair Alternative” EU development education project, supported by Forum Malta fl-Ewropa and held in collaboration with the “Global Action Schools” project.

The seminar will be led by Swedish Clean Clothes Campaign and Red Cross activist Nina Zita, and Vince Caruana, a lecturer on Environmental Education at the University of Malta. The seminar will include an interactive exercise exploring “our links with the global south through textiles.”

The short documentary film “Courageous Hearts without Retreat” will be introduced by EVS volunteer Nina Zita, who co-produced the film. It includes interviews with garment workers in Cambodia and representatives of some of the largest chain stores selling clothes in Sweden. The film also carries interviews with the Cambodian garment workers during their visits to the shops in Sweden that sell the garments they produce.

During the Festival, the four Maltese organisations that make up the Forum for Justice and Cooperation, including the fair trade organisation Koperattiva Kummerċ Ġust, will be presenting information about the EU-funded development education and GLEN projects in which they are involved.

Koperattiva Kummerċ Ġust that runs the world shop L-Arka is officially recognized as a fair trade organisation by IFAT, the International Fair Trade Assocation. Fair Trade aims to guarantee not just fair prices, but also the principles of ethical purchasing. These principles include adherence to ILO agreements such as those banning child and slave labour, guaranteeing a safe workplace and the right to unionise, adherence to the United Nations charter of human rights, a fair price that will at least cover the cost of production and facilitate social development, and especially in agriculture, protection and conservation of the environment. Fair trade also aims for long-term business relationships that are transparent throughout the chain. For consumers, fair trade seeks to guarantee high quality. This is usually indicated to the consumer by a fair trade label or brand.

Documenting the Consequences of Globalization
On Friday, 8th December, Koperattiva Kummerċ Ġust will be showing the film The Take at St. James Cavalier at 6.30pm. The Take (2004), which the New York Times commends as “a stirring, idealistic documentary,” tells the captivating true story of thirty unemployed auto-parts workers in suburban Buenos Aires who walk into their idle factory, roll out sleeping mats, and refuse to leave. All they want is to re-start the silent machines. But this simple act – The Take – has the power to turn the globalization debate on its head.

The Take won the Documentary Award in the annual AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival and was nominated for various other awards. According to The Los Angeles Times, “Set in a time of national economic disaster, The Take is a stirring story of workers organizing… a suspenseful and cautionary tale documenting the consequences of globalization… universal in its implications.”

The film is directed by Avi Lewis, one of Canada’s most outspoken journalists, and written and narrated by Naomi Klein, author of the international bestseller No Logo, champion a radical economic manifesto for the 21st century. What shines through in this fascinating documentary is the simple drama of workers’ lives and their struggle: the demand for dignity and the searing injustice of dignity denied. In its review of the film, The New Yorker argues that “Lewis and Klein have done something extraordinary! The workers in The Take are so admirable, displaying a melancholy eloquence and a genuine revolutionary spirit.”

In the wake of Argentina’s dramatic economic collapse in 2001, Latin America’s most prosperous middle class finds itself in a ghost town of abandoned factories and mass unemployment. The Forja auto plant lies dormant until its former employees take action. They’re part of a daring new movement of workers who are occupying bankrupt businesses and creating jobs in the ruins of the failed system.

But Freddy, the president of the new worker’s co-operative, and Lalo, the political powerhouse from the Movement of Recovered Companies, know that their success is far from secure. Like every workplace occupation, they have to run the gauntlet of courts, cops and politicians who can either give their project legal protection or violently evict them from the factory.

The story of the workers’ struggle is set against the dramatic backdrop of a crucial presidential election in Argentina, in which the architect of the economic collapse, Carlos Menem, is the front-runner. His cronies, the former owners, are circling: if he wins, they’ll take back the companies that the movement has worked so hard to revive.

Armed only with slingshots and an abiding faith in shop-floor democracy, the workers face off against the bosses, bankers and a whole system that sees their beloved factories as nothing more than scrap metal for sale.

The Vancouver Sun describes The Take as “a story of every-day heroism that also offers a model for productive change by repositioning the people as the power-brokers.” It is a story that shows that common people are not helpless in the face of gross injustice and that change can only take place if people reappropriate their own destinies with their courage and willpower.

The Power of the Consumer
Stephen Cassar from the organizing team speaks passionately about the issues at the heart of this year’s edition of Taste the World. “It is a sad fact that the textile industry today harbors quite a few indelible secrets of its own. Human dignity and worker’s rights have been replaced by a seemingly unsatiable appetite for bigger profits. This has led many multinational companies to close their plants in Europe and north America and relocate to the South where employees have less rights and investors seem to have a free rein.

Can we as consumers do anything to oppose these injustices? Stephen Cassar, an IT expert and fair trade volunteer believes that “surprisingly, the answer is a very strong yes. Information is our strongest asset. Festivals like “Taste the World” entertain the public and at the same time raise awareness about global issues” which sometimes seem so distant. His message is for people to “attend, have fun, learn and discover new and easy ways to make our beautiful world a better place.”

Adrian Grima

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