Is Refugee Labor the New Fair Trade Issue?

Fair Trade refers to just compensation for farmers and workers who produce the ingredients we enjoy in various products. With a Fair Trade label, consumers can identify which products were produced in an ethical manner. The main goal of Fair Trade certified products is to encourage the economic growth of disadvantaged communities in developing countries and to improve the quality of life for farmers, workers and their families. It's conscious consumerism, because buying Fair Trade products makes you aware of the origins of the products you buy. What if those farmers and workers are brought here?

The U.S. Department of Commerce designated 12 Manufacturing Communities to receive portions of a $1 billion fund. Some of those communities just so happen to be the recipients of an influx of refugees from developing countries. Through programs such as the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, refugees are relocated to communities and some are immediately offered jobs in these manufacturing plants and facilities. Many refugees have no choice where they're relocated to, but also have limited options for employment. Some don't even know what state they're moving to until the day of arrival. Some programs issue "grants" to families to cover food, housing and transportation for a short time. Some refugees have told me their "grants" have to be paid back eventually with their factory wages.

Proponents of these programs argue that this all results in more job creation and economic growth for communities that would otherwise face harsh economic times. Politicians and leaders from the business sector fear that they won't attract young adults and their families to live in these communities, because an economically depressed community cannot offer them jobs or amenities. Companies that claim to be "sustainable" and "economically just" see no problem hiring refugee workers at low wages, knowing the circumstances of their arrival and employment. These company leaders go out of their way to share stories of their good works around the world in the name of sustainable development and economic justice, but families from those countries here in the United States working in their plants may not be experiencing economic justice at all.

Some refugees left high paying jobs, and were scientists and educators, but traded it all to escape persecution. Is it fair to steer them toward low wage opportunities and have them owe money? Why should they owe money if refugee resettlement programs are already funded and if there are more funds available for workforce development and training, such as the one available through the U.S. Department of Commerce?

A Fair Trade Label on products manufactured by companies that leverage refugee labor in a way that's not economically just may be what's needed in our time. Consumers could quickly identify which companies are paying refugees a proper wage, taking into account the "grant" they have to repay due to the resettlement program. They can choose not to support companies that are knowingly relocating to communities to take advantage of these workers and that continue to benefit from federal and local tax incentives to stay.

You don't have to wait for a label on a food product. Get to know which companies may be benefiting from low wage refugee labor and make a statement with what you buy (or don't buy) the next time you go shopping.