Last month I attended Britain’s biggest student conference on world poverty, human rights and the environment: Shared Planet. It is run by People & Planet, the country’s largest grassroots student campaigning network, which boasts over 130 groups in schools, colleges and universities.
The weekend was packed with enlightening workshops for the 500 attendees; this year’s event was especially inspiring as many of those who came along hailed from schools and universities beyond People & Planet’s traditional strongholds. I found two sessions particularly fascinating: one by Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, who belongs to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of Northern Alberta, Canada, and another by Reyna Elizabeth Dominguez Martinez, the Acting Secretary of CGT – a trade union federation in Honduras.
Eriel explained how the Alberta tar sands are the dirtiest fuel on earth, producing more than three times as much CO2 per barrel as conventional oil. The extraction process uses more natural gas in a day than the heating of 3.2 million Canadian homes for a year, and there is still plenty of oil in the ground (1,350 billion barrels in Alberta alone) whose extraction would push us over a tipping point and into runaway climate change. The tar sands extraction is destroying indigenous lands, including ancient forests, and heralds the death not only of their way of life, but also of the indigenous people themselves. For such is the odious nature of tar sands that their production gives rise to a multitude of cancerous toxic chemicals. This is why indigenous communities no longer call it ‘dirty oil’ but rather ‘bloody oil’. We also learned that the UK Government must take some responsibility for this environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, thanks to its 83 per cent ownership of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is a major funder of the project (to the tune of $2.7 billion). On the upside, this makes it easy for people in Britain to get involved in the campaign and have a real impact.
Reyna had possibly the most inspiring story of all. She, along with 1,200 co-workers, was fired in January for forming a trade union at Jerzees de Honduras (JDH) – a garments factory notorious for its abuse of its workers. The union activists’ efforts led to JDH being the first-ever unionized garment factory in Honduras. However, Russell Athletic, a subsidiary of Fruit of Loom, responded by closing the entire factory and firing its 1,200 workers, most of whom were women with dependent family members. Management were up front about the reasons for the closure, stating: ‘The workers will starve because they got involved in a union’.
Fortunately, the Workers’ Rights Consortium (an independent labour rights monitoring organization) stepped in, investigated the case and handed over the evidence to United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in the US and People & Planet in Britain. These two groups then instigated the first ever trans-Atlantic university boycott. Over 110 universities in the US, Canada, and Britain terminated millions of dollars’ worth of contracts with Fruit of the Loom as a result. In the end Fruit of the Loom backed down and became the first transnational corporation to be forced to reopen a factory due to a boycott campaign. Workers will also have full union rights and receive compensation for lost work. These are just two of the sessions which packed out a brilliant weekend. Listening to the inspiring stories, sharing experiences and making plans for the rest of the year – over a pint in the pub with new comrades – left me completely worn out, but strangely energized.