IMPACT WITH FACTS: HANDING PASSPORTS BACK TO FOREIGN WORKERS
Posted: March 27, 2015
In developing Harmless Harvest projects and partnering with Fair for Life, we have come face-to-face with the hard reality of how many products are made. One worrying practice involves farmers confiscating the passports of foreign workers to prevent them from leaving. Although illegal, this system occurs in Thailand, where our Organic Coconut Water is sourced, and where foreign workers often come from neighboring countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar (Burma). However, this issue is not exclusive to Thailand nor agriculture. The problem exists in many countries that rely on foreign workers—including the United States—and spans various industries and established companies.
It’s also a more complicated issue than it may seem at first glance. Farmers frequently invest substantial amounts of money to employ foreign workers. These fees can include passport renewals, visas, and work permits. If workers quit after a short period of time, employers simply lose this significant sum. Turnover can be incredibly high, as workers generally receive a low wage and will move to whichever employer is paying best. With consumers’ demand for low-priced goods, corners must be cut somewhere and undervalued and underpriced goods mean undervalued and underpaid workers.
Through our partnership with Fair for Life, we look for solutions that address the root of the problem, as well as the problem itself. First, we establish rules that manage risks to farmers, while ensuring the decent working conditions of farm workers. Each farm is pre-inspected before entering our certification program for adherence to organic and Fair for Life principles. This gives us the opportunity to meet each farmer and interview their staff. It is our first chance to find out if there are foreign workers and if their documentation is being held, a recurring procedure that happens regularly through announced and unannounced visits to the site. The most important aspect of this process is getting farmers to agree to the Fair for Life principles through a moral contract. Having a farmer sign this contract gives us the opportunity to explain, teach, and train the farmers, as well as address any concerns they might have.
Among other items, farmers must agree to pay for the visas and work permits of foreign workers, offer social benefits, and never take official documentation from workers. Farmers know that breaking these rules will result in being suspended or excluded from our list of suppliers. In return for compliance, we develop the social benefits necessary through Fair for Life and price goods based on the real cost of production. This means that employers are able to offer a package to workers that provides fair wages, social benefits, and educational solutions for their families. The children of foreign workers can have a difficult time being accepted and excelling in schools where they do not speak the language. Through Fair for Life, we are working to facilitate children’s access to schools, and implement social security and benefits through a health care system. This allows farmers to attract employees and keep them, without forcing them to stay.
We are extremely proud of the incredible efforts of Harmless Harvest team members in implementing these procedures, as well as the response from the suppliers we work with, and the guidance of Fair for Life. Change can be difficult, and procedures are imperfect. We are still learning and know that we will continue to discover new issues and new solutions along the way. We look forward to keeping you updated as we do.