An importer of Fair Trade certified Argentinian blueberries denies claims that one of its grower partners is guilty of forced labor practices.
According to Argentinian media reports in early December, police in the Buenos Aires province arrested five men on charges they forced up to 95 people, including 11 minors, to work in inhumane conditions for blueberry shipper Baldones SA.
But Rafael Goldberg, chief executive officer of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based interrupcion* Fair Trade, which imports berries from Baldones SA, said the charges are false and politically motivated.
“What is out there now, we know to be false,” Goldberg said. “The prosecutor’s findings are unsubstantiated.”
Among those findings are reports that several weapons were found near where the five men were arrested, and that some men were armed at the time of the arrest. Argentine officials claim the weapons were used to coerce workers.
But Goldberg said it’s common for Argentine growers to keep weapons on their farms. As for charges that the workers were kept against their will, Goldberg said many of them have worked for Baldones for years, and that many returned for work voluntarily the day after the government’s raid.
Also, he said, the third-party fair trade certifier for interrupcion* and members of the company, Goldberg included, have visited Baldones’s operations and given the company’s labor practices their stamp of approval.
Interrupcion*’s fair trade certifier is the Institute for Marketecology’s Fair for Life program. It is not affiliated with Fair Trade USA, formerly known as Transfair USA.
Interrupcion* doesn’t have specific evidence of a government plot to frame Baldones, Goldberg said.
A small percentage of the blueberries interrupcion* imports from Argentina come from Baldones, so the importer’s 2012 blueberry volumes are unlikely to be affected, Goldberg said.
Interrupcion* received its last blueberries of the 2011 season from Baldones in November.
But interrupcion* will do everything it can to defend Baldones, and Goldberg said even the perception of wrongdoing by Baldones could hurt the Fair Trade importer.