Poldark and Fair Trade
Tuesday, 28 April 2015 | Joanna
The BBC's latest adaptation of Poldark left our screens on Sunday 26 April. While many fans will miss the rocky clifftops and Cornish vistas, and perhaps even more will miss the smouldering good looks of lead actors Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson, the social comment of the series shouldn't be underestimated.
Ross Poldark came back from the American Revolutionary War with revolutionary ideas of his own. Viewers saw him take over the family mine to give local workers an income, mucking in with the workers, treating them as equals and providing free housing and medical treatment to those who needed it. He never exploited them, and while some proved lazy and tried to exploit his goodwill, most respected his decisions and realised they were working for a common goal. Forming a collective to try to break the stranglehold of the Warleggans and increase the income from their copper, campaigning against unfair laws and inhumane prison conditions, Ross Poldark is a real fair trader.
Britain in the 1780s and 90s was a hard place to be a manual worker. There were no laws to protect mineworkers and factory workers. It was legal and common until 1842 for children aged 8 to work in Cornish mines. There was no protective clothing, and deaths were common. So why did it change? In short, pressure from social justice campaigners as well as the collective actions of workers who formed unions forced the government to pass laws to protect workers. Pioneering employers - notable examples include Robert Owen of New Lanark, Titus Salt of Saltaire and and the Cadbury family at Bourneville - showed how business could be done differently; how looking after the workers wasn't an expensive indulgence but a vital part of a successful and sustainable business.
In the 21st century workers in the EU are protected by laws, it's clear to most employers that their workers are an investment. But in large parts of the developing world that's still not the case. As fair trade campaigners and businesses we are often told that our work is pointless; that nothing will change; that workers will always be exploited because businesses will always try to get the lowest price, to crowd out attempts at collective action. That was the prevailing wisdom in 1790s Cornwall as well, but pioneering and campaigning work on behalf of workers made sure things changed. It's a long game, and it can be a lonely one, but as long as we don't accept the status quo we can all make a difference. Buying goods from businesses which prioritise treating workers as human beings first and economic units second makes the world a better place. Together we can change global trade for the better.