A FIGHT is on to save the jobs of employees of the Vieux Fort-based Windward Islands Packaging Company Limited (WINERA) – and indeed the company itself, which manufactures cardboard cartons used by the banana industry to export bananas to the United Kingdom.
Leading the workers’ fight is the National Workers Union (NWU), their bargaining agent, which has met on the matter with Commerce, Investment and Industry Minister Bradley Felix.
The battle is over a planned switch — from cardboard boxes, in which bananas are exported, to plastic crates, a commodity not manufactured here.
Discussions are ongoing with WINERA, NWU, the Commerce Ministry and WINFRESH – the company that purchases bananas from Windward Islands farmers for sale in the United Kingdom.
The discussions surround concerns about the impact of the change on the future of WINERA, as well as the implications for the continued employment of its workers, should the cardboard boxes be phased-out and replaced with the imported plastic crates.
Bernard Cornibert, Chief Executive Officer of WINFRESH Ltd said that the change in packaging from cardboard boxes to plastic crates is based entirely on the decisions of the major UK supermarkets, which purchase bananas from WINFRESH.
According to him, WINFRESH’s largest supermarket customer in the UK, last year, decided to convert fully to IFCO (plastic) crates, known as international fruit containers by the end of this year and that other supermarket customers plan to follow shortly.
“Therefore, this is an industry-wide trend to move to recyclable packaging,” he said, claiming that the crates are not new to the local banana industry as more than 50 percent of the bananas from St. Lucia were already being shipped in those crates before the change was considered.
The principal customer of WINERA is the banana industry therefore a change from cardboard cartons to plastic crates will have implications for the company and its employees, a point noted by Cornibert, who said that WINFRESH understands the employees concerns and empathizes with them.
He said that WINFRESH has had discussions with WINERA and both had agreed that WINFRESH should seek the agreement of its UK customer to extend the change-over period to allow WINERA to exhaust its current stock of paper intended for the banana industry, to avoid a sudden shock to its business and to minimize the negative impact.
“However, it is important to understand that our banana industry operates in a competitive market-driven environment and so WINFRESH has no control over the behaviour and decisions of its customers. It has no choice but to comply with the demands of the customers and to implement the changes to protect its business and the banana industry,” Cornibert said.
WINFRESH’s CEO said that to do otherwise would be disastrous to all concerned, not just for WINERA and its workers but for the banana industry and St. Lucia’s economy.
WINFRESH, Cornibert added, is fully committed to working with all concerned to minimize the negative effects of the change, wherever these are likely to be felt.
The NWU, in its fight to keep WINERA open and the jobs of employees intact, had suggested to WINERA and its shareholders, which include government, to mount an investigation to determine the cost of the equipment for making the crates.
The NWU further suggested that the equipment should be purchased and a factory for the production of the plastic crates could be established either in Choiseul, Anse La Raye or Canaries.
The NWU says it would not support the importation of plastic crates as this would phase out the production of carton boxes made by WINERA for the banana industry and therefore put employees on the breadline, hence its proposal for the production of the plastic creates in St. Lucia.
At a meeting two weeks ago between WINERA, the leadership of the NWU and Minister Felix, it was agreed that an appeal should be made to push back a July 2018 date that was given as the cut-off point to facilitate the process of collating all the necessary information to inform the final decision on the plastic crate plant.
Also at that meeting were Agriculture Minister Ezechiel Joseph and Minister in the Ministry for Economic Development Herod Stanislaus.
The NWU has since written to Minister Felix urging him to appoint a small committee to be responsible for collating all the necessary information regarding the cost of purchasing equipment that is required for the establishment of a plastic crate plant.
WINERA is a joint venture among the governments of the four Windward Islands and Papelera Industrial S.A. of Venezuela.