Fair Trade in Chicago and Around the World

Posted on: March 12th, 2014

By Kevin Le, BA ’13

Fair trade is a practice that ensures commercial buyers and retailers pay these marginalized workers a living wage. When decent wages are offered, producers can invest in more jobs, food, medical treatment, and education for their communities.

While attending Loyola I had a chance to intern with Chicago Fair Trade, an aggregator organization for Chicago-based fair trade businesses. I also became a member of the Loyola Fair Trade Committee. These experiences were my introduction to fair trade and marked a profound change in how I perceived the consequences of my purchasing habits.

I was intrigued by the idea of fair trade as a sustainable business model so I sought another opportunity to intern in fair trade, this time for Mata Traders, a fair trade clothing company based on the North side.

I wanted to hear some first-hand account from one of the producers directly affected by fair trade practices so I asked for and was given an interview between Jonit, Mata Trader’s marketing director, and Rosy, a member of the fair trade women’s co-op that produces Mata Traders’ clothing. Rosy’s story goes like this:

Rosy is a member of a big extended family. Like many large families in India hers had money problems. This meant Rosy and her husband were unable to provide a good education for their two children.

Because of gender roles and traditional Indian culture, Rosy’s husband made her wear a sari to cover her head and did not want her to work. Rosy joined the co-op in 1994 with no skills or knowledge of garment production. Her husband resented her for this and did not speak to her for three months. Throughout this time the co-op supported her with help and guidance.

Rosy started out making bags but was promoted to the position of Center in Charge because of her hard work and ability to learn quickly. The co-op is divided into about 12 sewing centers. Each sewing center has about 15-20 women and a Center in Charge supervisory position. After three years as a Center in Charge she was promoted to supervisor (3 years), staff training (1 year), embroidery coordinator (1 year), quality checker (1 year), accessory purchaser, then finally to the level of assistant production manager where she has been for 3 years.

Along with a livable wage, Rosy has earned the respect of her family. Her husband even supports her work and encourages her to dress modernly because he respects her opinions and values. Rosy says she is now the strongest member of her family and is a role model for women just starting at the co-op.

Rosy’s oldest son (24) is now done with school and married. Her younger son (20) is finishing his education. Rosy says once he is done she will continue working to pursue the dream of owning her own home.

I graduated from Loyola last May and I still don’t know WHAT I want to be when I “grow up.” WHO I want to be is someone with a sense of how my actions impact the global community. In short, I want to give a damn about things that matter.

My favorite part of the interview with Rosy is when she says, “I started working for my family; to support them, but now I work for me, for my heart.” As a recent college graduate this rationalization is one I hope to emulate in my own life.
I don’t know the world, I don’t know everybody’s problems, and I don’t claim to have a solution to any real issues, but if buying some fair trade products will allow hard workers to escape the grasp of poverty, provide for their family and community, and support their own dreams, then it seems like a pretty good idea to me.

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