World trade has brought huge benefits to rich countries and big companies. The poor have not fared so well. Imbalances of power and resources mean that the poor often cannot compete, and are trapped in unjust cycles of exploitation and inequality. As it works today, the global trading system is unjust, yet as consumers we are generally oblivious and unaware of this.
Poorer countries produce most of the coffee, cocoa and cotton that richer countries consume – but the richer countries set the price, and then turn them into expensive drinks, chocolate and clothes, reaping all the profit. Of the price that we pay for such an item, the workers will typically be paid less than 3% of that, and that includes the actual raw material.
When multinational companies in the west are squeezed on price by the competition for customers, where is it that they cut costs? They cut costs at the place of least resistance – the workers – to make the most profit for the shareholders. If these workers are in a developing country, the company wields so much power that produce is often sold for less than it costs to grow or make, because there is no other sales option. This means that the farmers or workers won’t even earn enough to sustain life, let alone improve their situation.
Mardia a coffee farmer in Ethiopia says: “Coffee is killing us – we can’t clothe or feed our children let alone afford to send them to school. There are days when we go without food altogether. We will give coffee another two years, but if the price doesn’t go up I’ll have no choice but to cut down my trees.”
Sometimes our search for a bargain is at the expense of justice for others.
What the Bible says:
In Leviticus & Deuteronomy God set standards for Israel in the areas of health, justice, the economy & community. Israel was to set up a social system where the vulnerable would be treated fairly. They were to be a distinctive people, characterized by loving others and serving the poor.
"If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you.” (Lev 25:35)
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
“A poor man's field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.” (Proverbs 13:23)
“Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.” (Proverbs 16:8)
The people of Israel however went away from this ideal. In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders were very wealthy but the people were poor, and in debt to the religious elite. Jesus came to oppose the system of his day that kept people poor and subjugated. He challenged the power and authority that kept people down. He came to give life, and life to the full. He taught his followers to love one another and to treat each other with justice; not just immediate friends but neighbours as well. As his disciples we should be doing the same. Who is my neighbour?
“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal 5:13-14)
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” James 5:1-8
What can we do?
Another way to help is by supporting campaigns aimed at multi-national companies, national government and international bodies who wield the power and make laws governing international trade. For more information about Trade Justice Campaigns please click on the links below:
Tearfund's trade campaign
Christian Aid's trade justice campaign
Tearfund's Lift the Label website aimed at young people