Wanted: Fair Trade in Film and Television!

This short film, Fair Trade: The Story (8 mins) has been produced by Eq.tv (Equilibrium Television).

It’s very well made, with great use of images and sound, and powerfully sums up the complex issues around fair trade in an accessible manner. The best part: we don’t feel it’s an activist film, even though fair trade is, by definition, progressive and activist.

What is your power as a consumer? The film, produced in association with TransFair USA and TinCan Productions, begins with this question.

It then tells us: “Fair Trade combines stringent environmental criteria with the highest income and labour standards of any product certification. Fair Trade ensures a fair price for farmers, fair wages for workers, safe working conditions, direct marketing access, community development, democratic decision making, sustainable farming methods, environmental protection.”

Chris White of TransFair USA quips: “Fair trade isn’t a product. Fair trade isn’t a brand. Fair trade is a story.”

Fair trade is all about creating opportunities for small scale producers in the developing countries to get organised and supply directly to consumers in different parts of the world. When they sell direct, with few or no intermediaries, they can earn three or four times more, and that money will enhance their incomes, living standards and societies.

Read more about fair trade at Oxfam website, Make Trade Fair

Fair trade is certainly a cherished ideal, but it’s mired in complex economic and political realities. The globalised march of capital, profit-maximising multinational corporations and developed country farm subsidies are three among many factors that made fair trade difficult to achieve in the real world.

Difficult, but not impossible. Determined producers and consumers have shown over the years that they can connect to each other, ensuring greater fairness and justice in transaction. That’s the power of the consumer.

Now here’s another kind of fair trade that I have been advocating for a long time: Fair Trade in Film and Television (FTinFT for short). It’s high time we started promoting this as another plank in fair trade activism.

Let me explain. In the media-rich, information societies that we are now evolving into, media and cultural products are an important part of our consumption — and therefore, more of these have to be produced. In the globalised world, more television and film content is being sourced from the majority world — or is being outsourced to some developing countries where the artistic and technical skills have reached global standards.

But in a majority of these media production deals, the developing country film and TV professionals don’t enjoy any fair terms of trade or engagement. Their creativity and toil are being exploited by those who control the global flow of entertainment, news and information products.

This is why the top talent in the global South become assistants, helpers and ‘fixers’ to producers or directors parachuting in to our countries to cover our own stories for the Global Village. Equitable payments and due credits are hardly ever given.

I personally know many award winning film-makers in developing countries across the Asia Pacific who have been engaged on such unfair, uneven terms. Lacking sufficient market opportunities and trade unions in their own countries, these professionals have little choice but accept the occasional assignment that comes their way from BBC, CNN, AJI or other global players.

Remember, film-makers have families to feed too.

Unfair trade in film and TV is also how the unsung, unknown creative geniuses contribute significantly to the development of new cartoon animation movies or TV series, as well as hip video games that enthrall the global market. Lacking the clout and skill to negotiate better terms, freelancers and small companies across the global South remain the little elves who toil through the night to produce miracles. They work for tiny margins and even tinier credit lines. Some don’t get acknowledged at all.

If you think this is inevitable in the big bad world of profit-making business, hear this. I also know some western charities that champion global justice who are equally guilty of repeatedly exploiting southern film-makers — sometimes, ironically, to produce documentaries about social justice issues!

Even as they cover stories about fair trade practices in coffee or cotton, these entities practise unfair trade in their own industry.

I can cite many examples. Last year, the London-based Panos Institute approached me for recommendations for development-sensitive film-makers in two Asian countries where they wanted to implement some training programmes. I asked if the professionals I can gladly recommend – whose skills are on par with any western counterpart – would be paid international rates. Panos backed out saying they can only pay a local rate, which they felt was good enough.

Then there are UN agencies who always haggle with local film-makers over rates and fees. The same agencies that happily commission PR media agencies from Madison Avenue for hundreds of thousands of US Dollars would ask southern film-makers to donate their time, or work at a reduced fee, for the United Nations causes!

Local rates for local talent is simply not good enough if their work contributes to an international media effort. Southern film-makers and photographers, who lack opportunities to roam the planet looking for stories and work, should be engaged on fair, international rates in any media venture whose products will be consumed globally.

I’m proud to say that TVE Asia Pacific practises what I preach here. We are small time commissioners of southern film-making talent, but we always pay international rates, and engage local talent in every country we work in. And they get due, proper credit in all our productions.

This, then, is the essence of Fair Trade in Film and Television that we must advocate and agitate for. As long as the story tellers of the global struggles for social justice are themselves excluded from the story, there can be no fair trade, or true global justice.

There is now an urgency to address FTinFT because Media Process Outsourcing (MPO) is emerging as a growth industry. May 2007 news: India’s InfoSys and TV18 set up MPO firm.

Let me return to the question frequently posed by fair trade activists: What is your power as a consumer?

Now ask that question as a consumer of media products on TV, video, DVD, web and mobile devices. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t accept the lofty PR claims of big time (or even small time) producers and peddlers of media content on how ethically they have sourced or made this content.

For a start, look carefully at where stories have been made, and whether local film and TV professionals get proper, on-screen credit. And write to the big players – 24/7 news channels, cartoon corporations and others – demanding to know their fair trade policies and practices in content creation and sourcing.

Make the same demands on the United Nations agencies peddling media products on their social causes. See how many of them will stand a simple test: do they engage southern film-makers to tell stories of development and social justice in the South? If not, why not?

And if you are in a position to decide on commissioning a new film, TV or video product, please consider engaging local talent — but pay them international rates if your product is going to cross borders (these days it very likely will).

We have a long way to go to achieve Fair Trade in Film and Television. Let’s get moving!

Read my call for ethical sourcing of international TV news

Photos from TVE Asia Pacific image archives