4 May 2020

In times of COVID: Fairtrade Heroes adjusting their work to a new normal

In the past weeks, we’ve all had to adjust the way we work and live to protect ourselves and our families from the COVID-19 virus. We’ve marveled at the resilience and dedication of our first responders, as they’ve worked day in and out to treat those who’ve contracted the virus and to keep our communities safe. We’ve also started to recognize how much we rely on the retail workers who have kept shelves stocked with necessities and to rethink our shopping habits.

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Banana worker washing her hands during the COVID-19 pandemic working at Cooperativa Multiactiva de Bananeros del Magdalena
© Cooperativa Multiactiva de Bananeros del Magdalena

What we don’t always think about are the farmers and workers who are not only having to adapt to this ‘new normal’ of living and working with COVID-19, but are also continuing to work to provide the world with some of our most beloved – and some would say necessary – items such as our morning cup of coffee, bananas for breakfast, the cocoa in our 3:00pm chocolate bar, flowers to brighten up our day, our evening ‘cuppa’ of tea, and even the glass of wine we raise in our online happy hour chats.

This week, leading up to World Fair Trade Day on Saturday, 9. May, we will be highlighting how our “Fairtrade Heroes” are coping in their workplaces and in their communities… and hope that you will join our social media efforts to thank them for growing and harvesting the food on our shelves and tables.

Today, we’re featuring a conversation with Freddy Rodriguez Cantillo from the Fairtrade certified Coobamag banana cooperative in Colombia, who updated us on how the community is adapting.

What is life like after a month of lockdown?

Freddy: There is no shortage of food and, thank God, we are allowed to carry on working so farming hasn’t stopped. That’s really important because agriculture is our only source of income. We are working together with other banana co-ops, trade unions and the mayor’s office we to make sure protection and prevention measures are in place and that everyone gets enough to eat - everyone gets a delivery of free fruit.

There are always some people who don’t understand the severity of the virus, who go out on the street without protection and crowd into grocery stores, and ultimately are not complying with the recommendations. It’s also difficult for the casual workers or those without secure jobs such street vendors - they continue to work on the streets. It’s difficult to control because although they get some help from the authorities, they don’t think it’s enough so they carry on working.

All religious services have been suspended but some some priests and pastors have chosen to celebrate mass and hold services virtually so they can keep in touch with the faithful.

What special measures have you taken?

Freddy: In the packing houses and processing plants, we have managed to separate the work areas, and although the materials we have used are not really adequate they are all we have. People are respecting social distancing - for example, on some farms when it comes to lunchtime they take turns or spread themselves out around the room.

I want to emphasise that we are trying as hard as possible to keep the same staff working, so we don’t have to bring in staff from outside. If we do bring in new workers, we make sure we know where they come from and their contact history. The administrative staff are working behind closed doors and don’t have any contact with the public. Only company staff are allowed to come and go. When it comes to the weekly payments to members, we try to minimise personal contact, and the person making the payments wears a mask and hands the money over through the window. Those coming to collect payments have been told to wear a mask, wash their hands before entering and disinfect their footwear.

Together with the Municipal Volunteer Fire Department, we devised a plan to clean and disinfect public spaces in the town where we are located, as well as the processing plants of each farm and the roads and small villages around. We donated 400 litres of hypochlorite [bleach] to the fire department.

The co-op’s environmental manager and his assistants have been tasked with giving talks at each farm about prevention and protection measures, and guidance has been issued to the farm workers, fruit transport contractors and pallet suppliers.

How are young people dealing with the lockdown?

Freddy: Classes in public and private schools have been suspended, since the quarantine began in March, so they are all at home on early vacation. Some universities have chosen to continue their classes in virtual mode, so as not to disrupt studies. Not everyone has an internet connection or a computer so some schools are sending photocopied teaching materials through the post to students can carry on learning. suspend the semester, and other.

All sports training has been suspended but the young athletes are continuing to train at home - they have found some innovative ways to keep fit and their coaches have sent them training routines they can do at home. All sports fixtures have been suspended and we don’t know when competitions will begin again, but the youngsters understand the situation is out of their hands and they are getting on with keeping fit at home so they are ready to compete when the lockdown is lifted.

Are there any shortages of medicines or PPE?

Freddy: Of course there are shortages because at the beginning of the quarantine everyone bought up the stocks of PPE such as face masks, sanitisers and antibacterial gel. Medications such as vitamin C and painkillers are also difficult to obtain, and although they can be obtained from some distributors, the demand for products has pushed up the price.

How do people feel about the future?

Freddy: The main concern is about ourselves or someone we know catching the virus, so we focus on prevention. If any worker, producer or family member is infected, we will be forced to take drastic quarantine action, otherwise there’s a danger of losing control and generating a collective panic.

The future is uncertain - we are living day by day, waiting for news, seeing how the numbers of infections and deaths are increasing both here in Colombia and throughout the world. Of course we are frightened, because we can see the virus has caused so many deaths in developed countries, and we don’t want to imagine ourselves in such a situation in Colombia - our health system could not cope.