Banana bunch

Colombian banana workers have voted in favour of strike action.

A crisis in Colombian banana supply is looming after 18,000 workers voted in favour of strike action over proposed cuts to pay this week, The Grocer can reveal.

Colombia is a major source of bananas for UK retailers – accounting for 25% of bananas directly imported into the UK in 2012, according to Norwich-based NGO Banana Link.  

Sintrainagro, the Colombian agricultural workers union representing 90% of banana exporters and 288 farms in the banana growing region of Urabá, has spent weeks locked in negotiations with banana industry body, Augura (which represents 90% of banana producers in Urabá).

A strike committee has been elected following the collapse of negotiations and a members’ ballot, and workers now have until 17 June to set a strike date if agreement cannot be reached on pay in the interim.

UK NGOs have warned that any strike action could cause difficulties in supply for UK retailers.

Banana Link said a strike was bound to have an effect on supply, given the volumes of Colombian bananas sold in the UK. It predicted that the flow of more than a million boxes of bananas a week from the Urabá region would dry up within a fortnight of the start of a strike.

Tropical fruit giant Fyffes, a major importer of bananas into Europe, said it was fully aware of the planned strike and was closely monitoring the situation. “Contingency plans are being put in place to minimise any impact on customers should the strike go ahead,” a Fyffes spokeswoman said, adding that Colombia was its single largest source of fruit for the UK market.

Prices ‘not sustainable’

The dispute should serve as a warning to UK retailers that they were not currently paying enough for bananas, said Banana Link’s international co-ordinator Alistair Smith. “This should be a clear message to them that their consistently low prices to producers, particularly those with decent living conditions, are not sustainable anymore.” 

“All retailers sourcing from Colombia need to address what role they think they can play in ensuring employers can meet their costs of production”

Barbara Crowther, Fairtrade Foundation

The Fairtrade Foundation urged UK retailers to look again at the pay structure in the banana supply chain. “All retailers sourcing from Colombia need to address what role they think they can play in ensuring employers can meet their costs of production,” said Barbara Crowther, Fairtrade Foundation’s director of policy and public affairs.

In 2002, bananas were retailing at about £1.10 a kg in the UK and today a kilo of bananas costs about 68p a kilo, she added. “To suggest that consumers can’t afford to pay a sustainable price for bananas doesn’t hold water because we were paying that 10 years ago.”

Banana industry employers are seeking a reduction in pay – of up to 43% for some jobs – and cuts in social benefits because of the appreciation of the peso against the dollar, which has made Colombia’s bananas less competitive than bananas from other countries, according to Banana Link.

“We recognise that the industry is facing a serious crisis, but it is not for the workers to pay the price of a crisis that only the companies and the government can resolve,” said Sintrainagro president Guillermo Rivera. Workers should not be expected to bear the brunt when exchange rates and international markets affect the industry, he added. 

Sintrainagro is pushing for an 8% pay rise for its members in the first year and a 5% rise in the second year of a two-year pay deal.

Colombia is seen as a success story in achieving sustainable living wages for banana workers, Crowther added. But because of this, it struggles to compete with other banana-producing areas that have lower costs of production, she said.