British newspapers recently reported on problems with migrant labour in Malaysia, in particular in factories where rubber gloves, condoms, etc. are being produced (Malaysia is the world leader in
the production of so called ‘dipped products’ made from rubber).
Even though no member of the Fair Rubber Association (FRA) was implicated in any way, we want to take the opportunity to explain why the FRA ‘limits’ itself to the payment of a Fair Trade premium
to the small farmers and (rubber) plantation workers: They tap the raw material, they are at the beginning of every natural rubber supply chain.
The first Fair Trade labels were available only for coffee, followed by tea, …and this approach led to a systemic flaw: Fair Trade criteria specify pricing for products– not the amount
of labour that is required to produce a particular item. When dealing with coffee or tea, that is not a big deal, drying and roasting is all that is required after plucking. But other raw
materials undergo many processing stages until they reach a consumer.
Take natural rubber: After tapping the latex milk has to be stabilised (by coagulation and/or drying) – the first step from raw product to raw material, without which e.g. the onward production
of a mattress would not be possible. If the mattress then is covered e.g. in a cotton and wool cover, things become even more complicated. Should not all these production stages be covered by
Fair Trade agreements, too?
Unfortunately, it would be more or less impossible to calculate precisely how much labour went into a particular product at any given state: The administration of allocation, payment, and
monitoring of such a Fair Trade split would be far too complicated, whereas the benefits to the various people involved would be rather limited.
At the FRA we nevertheless did our best to calculate how much labour is involved at the various stages of rubber-processing: To tap one kg of DRC (Dry Rubber Content – about 1/3 of the ‘latex
milk tapped’ is ‘rubber’) a tapper requires anything from 40-68 minutes. To concentrate this by machine into so-called ‘centrifuged latex’ (required e.g. for mattresses or condoms) requires only
6 minutes of labour. Mattress making itself, too, is dominated by machines: 13 minutes/kg DRC. In other words: A total of 59-87 minutes of work are required for ‘one kg of mattress’ – of which
the input at the tapping stage represent 2/3-3/4.
Hence at the FRA we feel justified in focussing our efforts on the tapping stage – a practical compromise which has the benefit of ensuring that the largest possible Fair Trade premiums are
channelled to those people who have contributed the largest labour share to a product – while keeping administration to a minimum.
Which does not mean that we don’t care about the ‘rest’ of the supply chain – but we leave that in the responsibility of the respective FRA members. And of course: As long as customers
‘expect’ a pair of household gloves to cost no more than EUR 1.50 – processors have little choice but to exploit their workforce.
The Fair Rubber Association supports its members in their attempts to achieve acceptable working conditions at all levels.
70% of global production of natural rubber goes into tyres.