Imminent banana workers' strike in Colombia: the buyers' responsibility?

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The Colombian national agricultural workers' union Sintrainagro has announced that its 20,000 members employed in the banana industry will come out on strike in response to the employers' proposal to reduce wage rates and cut social benefits. This follows weeks of negotiations between Sintrainagro and Augura, the industry body in Colombia's Urabá region. The start-date is being determined by a strike committee elected yesterday, following a ballot of members that supported industrial action.

More than one banana in five imported into Britain currently is grown in Colombia, and over a third of these carry the Fairtrade label.

Barring a last-minute change of position by Augura, the industry body, 288 medium- and large-scale farms in Urabá will be paralysed in the next fortnight. The flow of well over a million boxes per week, mostly to Northern Europe, will dry up within a fortnight of the start of the strike.

The union very much regrets have to have recourse to strike action, but, as Sintrainagro President explains: « 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. We don't have any profit-sharing arrangements, so should not be expected to bear the brunt when exchange rates and international markets affect the industry. »

Although industry spokespeople cited in the Colombian press today note that there is still a chance of finding a solution before the 17th June deadline for setting the strike date, there is a huge gap between Augura's proposal to cut the rate for some jobs by over 40% and the union's bottom-line expectation – that workers should not have to throw away 20 years of improving wages and conditions, gained at the cost of many lives.

Maybe, just maybe, the big buyers who have kept the lid on price rises – especially in the UK where Colombia has become the biggest source of banana imports – will realise that their pricing policies have an awful lot to do with the crisis in Colombia. Bananas on the cheap - especially Fairtrade bananas - are simply not sustainable.

Sources : Sintrainagro/REL-UITA releases ; El Colombiano, Medellin, 05/06.