Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gunnar Brulin & Malin Klingzell-Brulin - Food for Thought: On Food, Power and Human Rights

Swedish journalists and trade unionists Gunnar Brulin and Malin Klingzell-Brulin have here attempted to produce a book that helps us understand the networks of companies, industries and individuals that are behind the food that we see on our plate. Based in Sweden, and working in conjunction with the Food Workers' Union, they trace some of the strands backwards from Swedish shops to the many different parts of the world were workers are producing food, and more often than not organising to protect and improve their conditions.

We meet for instance, the workers of Coca-Cola in the Philippines, who are fighting the increased casualisation in their industry. The women who work for Nestle in Brazil, who are fighting an epidemic of Repetitive Strain Injuries caused by bad working practices. The authors travel to interview tea workers in India and trade unionists everywhere fighting to establish workplace recognition and building networks.

Anyone who has been involved in the union movement for any length of time will recognise the situations described here. We may never have been to the developing world, but many of us understand the difficulties getting a union off the ground, enthusing people to come to meetings, sitting in long debates with management, distributing leaflets outside factory gates. Partly based on their links with the International Union of Food Workers, the authors paint a picture of the importance of international solidarity, of workers who work for a Transnational Corporation understanding what their colleagues do and need half a globe away.

In many ways this is exciting, though the book is too short for us to learn much about many of the places and people we are introduced too. The story also shows the links between the climate crisis, the financial crises and the food crises. A system which means that 800 million people go to bed hungry every day. Further, the authors, or the union leaders that they interview are very radical, talking of sustainable industries and agriculture, dignity, democracy and empowerment. They challenge the company priorities, though there is an occasional tip of the hat to a business that is seen as more progressive than another - Coca Cola over it's rival Pepsi, which doesn't work with the unions at all.

But the problem for me is that there is little sense of a workers movement fighting for change here. There is organising, and the occasional mention of a strike or protest. But much emphasis is placed on working with the bosses in the interest of everyone. Coca Cola is mentioned because its management seem to have recognised the need to work with the trade unions. Is this why there is barely any mention of the death of trade unionists working for the company in South America? Rather we are told who easy it is for western trade unionists to raise questions of an ethical nature with their management.

This is a well produced book, that highlights the reality of the struggles that take place behind the food that we eat. Whether its coffee, chicken, pork or prawns this is the modern food system. The reality is that western food is built on a pyramid of casual, underpaid labour, that occasional relies on children, that frequently sacks trade unionists and that needs to be fought every inch of the way. As the authors detail well in the appendices, there are a tiny number of undemocratic, powerful and rich corporations controlling almost all the world's food.

If we're to have decent jobs, healthy and sustainable food than we'll need fighting trade unions. When this happens, it is clear that everywhere workers take an interest in the bigger picture. Brulin and Brulin show that this is beginning to happen but the bureaucratic approach taken by the cosy Scandinavian union's described here will not blunt the teeth of the capitalist tiger. We need much more than this.

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