Adding a pinch of salt to a meal can make all the difference. It usually boils down to a number of things; whether you like the meal or not, whether you’re willing to continue eating the food, and whether you’re ready to go back for more. There’s something so universal about the use of salt in kitchens across the globe, that one cannot ignore the immense impact of those tiny crystals on human life. Unfortunately, the impact is not always positive. The human rights abuses that result from the involvement of salt and other food products in the so-called free trade system often go ignored and are in most cases unheard of.

On the pages of a travel brochure about Senegal, you are bound to see a photo or two of the beautiful Pink Lake, or ‘Le Lac Rose’ as it is known in the francophone West-African country. The lake derives its name from its spectacular pink appearance. The phenomenon behind the famous and interesting appearance of the lake can be traced to those same crystals which constitute salt. On an ideal day with the right combination of sunshine and wind, the salt crystals and microorganisms in the depths of the Pink Lake are reflected and voila, the lake is pink. With less than ideal conditions, the lake might take on an orange or grey appearance. The extraordinary nature of the lake draws in many of tourists year-round, and is a source of income to the people who live in the lake area. However, tourism is not the main source of living for the people of the Pink Lake area. Salt production is.

In July 2008, I had the opportunity to interact with some of the salt workers on a field trip to the Pink Lake with the Young Women’s Knowledge and Leadership Institute. Being an economics and French student, I was very excited about the opportunity to practice my French and relate economic theory to reality. I was soon forced to put away my textbook notions of economics and French. For one thing, the workers didn’t speak any French at all, but instead spoke the local Senegalese language Wolof. The only way I was able to communicate with them was through the help of some of the Senegalese participants at the institute, who spoke both French and Wolof. As we interviewed the workers, I discovered another farce about my knowledge of economics. Economic theories and textbooks are exactly what they say they are; just text and theory.

According to economic theory, the free market eventually handles its own problems. In a country where basic economic infrastructure and essential labor and trade mechanisms are put in place, this might be true. But on the banks of the Pink Lake and in many other developing countries, other forces dictate life. Both men and women work at the Pink Lake. The men are generally concentrated in the decision-making process of salt production and negotiate prices with rich businessmen from local and international companies. Since the Senegalese government is not directly involved with proceedings at the lake, a cycle of exploitation has been built. The businessmen exploit the male workers who have little or no knowledge about the industry’s labor and trade policies, and offer them low prices for the salt under the guise of making it more “competitive” on the global market. The male workers in turn hire women to empty salt-filled canoes by carrying basins of salt on their head, with each basin weighing about 60 kilograms. The women, who are also the breadwinners, make an average of 50 trips to transport the salt from a single canoe to the shore. They wear no protective clothing and are vulnerable to many skin diseases and health problems. At the end of the day, these women are paid a daily wage of about $2, which is not only below the minimum daily wage of $3, but is eight times less than the $16 wage their male counterparts receive.

The notion of fairness in global trade is based on the premise of a level-playing field. This premise has been criticized by many economists and human rights activists since the very realities of high and low-income countries suggest that they operate on entirely different levels. Free trade also aims at making its participants relatively well-off by encouraging each participant to focus on the production of the good in which it has a comparative advantage. Not only has the system failed to meet its key objective, it has succeeded in leaving a string of human rights abuses in its wake. So long as the global trade system continues to steal from the poor to feed the rich, the idea of fair trade is one which should be taken with a little more than a pinch of salt.

*This article was written by Jemila Abdulai and published in the Mount Holyoke News.