CLASP Interview: Equal Exchange supports fair trade and fair labor standards

Equal Exchange is a worker-owned co-op partnering with small farmers to offer fair trade coffee, chocolate, and other products. It has 145 employees in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington. CLASP spoke with Co-Executive Director Rob Everts about his support for job quality policies.

CLASP: Equal Exchange has supported public policy requiring paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and fair scheduling practices. What has driven you as an employer to speak out on these issues?

Everts: First and foremost, it’s the right thing to do. We believe that workers have a right to have a life outside of work, and these policies contribute to having a life. So we expect people who are here [at work] to work really hard and do good work, but we also don’t believe in taking advantage of people. We realize that people sometimes have real pressures and stresses and strains outside of work, and we want to acknowledge that. And I believe when we do so, our efforts are returned to the business – people appreciate it and reward us with good work and loyalty in exchange.

CLASP: You’ve personally been involved in grassroots organizing for workers’ rights since at least 1975, and in promoting fair business practices through a for-profit company, Equal Exchange, for twenty years now. What can business owners who want to speak out for progressive public policy learn from your long experience on both the grassroots and business-based sides?

Everts: It’s unfortunate that the labor movement is not as strong as it has been in years and decades past, and I think that’s been a contributor to the inequity in incomes in this country now. So it’s not that business needs to take up the voice of labor, but I think business must own up to a responsibility that is wider and broader and deeper than the bottom line. And I think businesses need to know that they’re an important part of any economic and social fabric in a community or a region or a country.

Businesses often receive benefits from the public side, like through the education system. Therefore, there’s an obligation to do right, by workers and by the society at large. I think too often, there is an immediate knee-jerk fear, or a response by business that certain things will cost them too much, or are not viable, be it safety-related or pay-related or benefit-related. In fact, many of these things do pay for themselves, often through retention of employees for longer, so that the businesses don’t have to devote the kind of time and resources to constantly rehiring and retraining new people. So I think there’s an enlightened self-interest by business to look at the broader social landscape that we operate in, and look how we can constantly do the best we can.