By Banana Link international coordinator Alistair Smith
In an industry that has always been dominated by labor-intensive, large-scale production, the struggle for small-scale producers to stay in the market has always seemed like David and Goliath. The farmers of the three Windward Islands in the Caribbean have all the comparative disadvantages in the textbook, but, thanks to their strategy to market their bananas as Fairtrade, several thousand have managed to sustain livelihoods against almost all the odds.
But the arrival of Black Sigatoka fungal disease and repeated climatic disasters risk putting them out of business for good. Yet another devastating storm this Christmas has left 700 of them without a livelihood and in need of external support to rehabilitate their one or two hectare farms.
Unfortunately, they sell into the most ‘value-stripped’ market in the world. The British market used to be the best for producers a decade or so ago, but all that has changed since Asda and WalMart decided to fight their retail competitors with low banana pricing in 2002. The U.K. is now an even worse place for many growers, large or small, to sell their fruit than Germany.
Neither market now allows a fair share of value to be returned to growers and their employees. Rising costs for growers simply have to be swallowed and any margin is sacrificed to the greater need to remain a supplier. Operate at a loss or get out, seems to be the market’s message.
The struggle for living wages for workers in the plantations and packhouses that supply most of the world market faces the same constraints. Workers who have battled for decades for decent wages and conditions, such as those in Colombia, now face losing their livelihoods simply because their employers are not receiving a fair price that covers their costs of production.
The will of most employers to share benefits exists, but if the figures don’t add up, room for maneuver is close to nil, as the closure of plantations in Uraba (Colombia) in recent weeks shows all too clearly. As for much-needed investment in further social and environmental improvements, this simply cannot happen with prices as they are in Europe at present.
Ironically, it is now the United States, where producers and traders still have some room for maneuver, where rising retail prices have been accompanied by a rise in consumption and producers report that their rising costs are often taken into account. The U.S.’s biggest supplier, Guatemala, has become the most dangerous country to be a trade unionist. The difference between wages and conditions in the plantations of the Caribbean province of Izabal and those of the new banana frontier of the Pacific South are huge. The risk is that even in a market that has been less value-stripped, producers – who provide decent work, and in places where trade unions have good industrial relations and collective contracts, such as most of those in Izabal – are in danger of being seen as too expensive.
Efforts to support a ‘rebalancing of cost” through improvements in wages and conditions in the Pacific South are under way, but need the support of major producers and market operators to ensure that the violent response five years ago over the creation of a first trade union in the Pacific South is not repeated.
The social and economic realities for most small farmers and workers who depend on the global banana trade remain harsh, but the evidence that it is possible to make a decent livelihood as a banana worker, even in some of the most violent countries in the world, should still give us cause for hope.
The key, though, is fair prices and a fair sharing of value back along the chain. Consumers support this. Is the industry able to deliver?
Alistair Smith will be a special guest at this year’s ‘Equal Exchange Banana Conference 2014: The Future of Authentic Fairtrade Bananas’, to be held in Boston on March 21.