Workers Beer Company: Pint Sized Ethics

Merrick, 31st July 2006ce

Workers Beer Company was formed in 1986 on a simple and excellent premise; to run bars at festivals, with all the wages and profits going to good causes.

They get cool organisations - workers rights, environmental and social justice - to send volunteers staff for the bars. The staff get a free ticket to the festival, and their wages are paid direct to the organisation that sent them. Not one penny Workers Beer ever make is private profit.

In an article in May's issue of Red Pepper, Tim Mills from WBC explains, 'We live in a very rich society, where we can afford to pay a bit more to ensure that the person who actually makes something isn't exploited. We want to continue to develop our business based on fairness and respect...We're about practising what we preach'.

Workers Beer Company sells fair trade fruit juices made in Cuba. But only at the Left Field, one of the smaller bars at Glastonbury. At all other bars and festivals, they go with unfairly traded stuff, grown unsustainably and commonly with non-union labour.

One of their largest contracts is for Leeds and Reading festivals, promoting Coor’s brands Carling and Grolsch. Coor's is an American-based corporation that uses two foundations (the Adolph Coors Foundation and the Castle Rock Foundation) to fund anti-trade union, anti-abortion and anti-gay campaigns and measures. They have a proud and public history of funding organisations run by infamous Christian bigots Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Coor’s have broken strikes at their factories by decertifying the unions and hiring non-union scab labour. They give hefty grants to many extremist conservative foundations, including the Independence Institute, a coal and oil industry organisation that 'researches' and lobbies for market incentives to deal with environmental protection, and for government environmental projects to be privatised.

William Coors once delivered a speech to a mostly African-American audience explaining that 'one of the best things they [slave traders] did for you is to drag your ancestors over here in chains.' In the same speech, he surmised that the floundering Zimbabwean economy was due to black Africans' “lack of intellectual capacity”.

All this is well-known, and Coor's has been heavily boycotted in the USA since the 1970s. I'm sure we can presume Workers Beer Company people are well aware of such a large union issue. But they work with Coor's because the money is more important.

When I worked the bar at Homelands festival WBC managers insisted that all frontline staff - including those working to raise money for No Sweat - had to personally promote Coor’s by wearing Grolsch T-shirts made in Bangladeshi sweatshops.

WBC get more money from the breweries when the staff wear such promo T-shirts. The staff get paid the same, though.

They do tie-in sponsorships with Bacardi, the company that bankrolls the Cuban-American National Foundation to put loads of money and political pressure to maximise the American embargo of Cuba, in direct opposition to the aim of the Cuban Fair Trade juices sold at Left Field.

Through the CANF Bacardi sponsored the Helms-Burton Act which, in contravention of international trade law, extends the embargo to third countries; it not only blocks American companies from trading in items including essential medical supplies, but also lets the US government penalise anyone they trade with who does supply Cuba.

A 1997 report by the Association for World Health illustrates the effects by listing some specific cases: a heart attack patient who died because the US government refused a licence for an implantable defibrillator; Cuban children with leukaemia denied access to new life-prolonging drugs; children undergoing chemotherapy who, lacking supplies of a nausea-preventing drug, were vomiting on average 28 times a day. Workers Beer Company are indirectly complicit in all this.

Again, as people well aware of labour struggles, they surely cannot be ignorant of this stuff. In fact, on the page facing the Red Pepper article that praised WBC was a list of unethical drinks. It named Bacardi’s ‘dark arts over the years against Cuba’ as ‘one of the biggest political booze battles of all time’.

The only explanation of WBC’s behaviour is that profits are more important to them.

WBC makes generous provision for their staff, giving them secure camping areas, food and recreation facilities. At Glastonbury, I found the WBC canteen was the only place to break the site’s ecological ban on polystyrene cups. Not only this, they were used to serve the staff Nestlé hot drinks.

Nestlé are probably the most boycotted corporation on the planet because, in breach of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, they aggressively promote milk powder in places where it will be mixed with unsafe water. Where water is unsafe a bottle-fed child is up to 25 times more likely to die as a result of diarrhoea than a breastfed child. According to World Health Organisation estimates, a baby dies every 30 seconds because they are not breastfed.

Glastonbury has pushed hard for fair trade to be the only coffee sold on site, and these days it's mandatory. WBC’s staff canteen held out longer than many of the commercial stalls.

WBC sell Diageo products such as Smirnoff Ice. Diageo’s presence in Africa is huge, and it draws around a tenth of its profits from the continent.

Diageo was one of the main sponsors for the 2003 meeting of the Commonwealth Business Council in Abuja. The agenda was clear. It was held immediately before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and was explicitly touted as a 'unique opportunity' for delegates to 'network', contribute to policy recommendations, and influence 'the debate on important trade and investment issues’.

What angle did these unelected people impose? The CBC’s recommendations primarily concerned the ‘liberalising’ of public services and the reduction and eradication of 'burdensome environmental, health and safety regulations'.

You’ve got to love the use of that word. It’s ‘burdensome’ to behave as if your actions have consequences that you’re responsible for, or as if other people matter to any real degree.

Diageo are also the company that gave the world thalidomide, and the compensation provided to those affected has been shamefully inadequate even before you consider Diageo’s annual profits of £2billion. Because of this, there were decades of campaigning and even hunger striking to push for fair treatment, and Thalidomide UK instigated a boycott of Diageo brands. The boycott only ended 7 months ago when Diageo was finally shamed into a reasonable settlement.

Diageo is also the owner of the Gleneagles Hotel, host of the 2005 G8 summit. In the run-up, Diageo was part of the Business Contact Group of the Commission for Africa, which pushed hard for increased opening of African markets to freemarketeering and privatisation. Such measures take away vital services from those who are unprofitable - if you can’t pay for clean water or education, you don’t get it.

In the last fifteen years, Diageo’s Guinness plant in Nigeria has had four waves of redundancies. Each time, a mass hiring casual labour followed. It had nothing to do with a reduction in staff required, it was a simple device to rid themselves of the unions. Diageo are committed and active enemies of trade unions, social justice and environmental integrity.

Workers Beer Company sets out with noble intentions, but only for those it has immediate contact with. They remain blinkered to the larger and wider impacts of their work. Given the well publicised nature of the issues involved, you have to conclude that such blinkeredness is a considered and deliberate position. If they believed in workers solidarity - if they really were ‘about practising what we preach’ - then they’d be leading the way in providing fair trade drinks and cutting ties with viciously exploitative corporations. Instead, they act as their profit engines.

It cannot be justified to strengthen the hand of basically comfortable unions here at the expense of breadline unions further away, unions often faced with more oppression than anything their British counterparts are concerned with. The importance of workers rights doesn’t alter according to your proximity to the worker. Raising funds for Unison or whoever should not be a trade off for the rights of workers impoverished by the companies WBC support.

What they're giving with one hand they take away with the other. Selling products produced by companies that actively attack workers rights; endorsing companies that cause enormous suffering to the poor of the world; forcing anti-sweatshop activists to wear sweatshop T-shirts that promote WBC's partner who is anti-union, racist, homophobic and anti-environmental; in contradiction of Tim Mills, these things display neither fairness nor respect. They tick almost every box of exploitation.

The one obvious exception is blatant sexism. WBC got that one by doing a deal with The Sun (whose Wapping battle was the bitterest trade union battle since the miners’ strike) to have Page Three Stunnas pulling pints at WBC's Reading Festival bars. After Anarchist Black Cross volunteers objected to it the organisation was banned from sending staff ever again.

Workers Beer Company certainly can afford to pay a bit more to ensure there's no exploitation. Given their strong position as bar provider at festivals, they could change the terms and supply more ethically. They just choose not to.