From Cardboard to Plastic?

Image: Preparing bananas for export

The brewing controversy at WINERA over the future of how Windward Islands bananas are exported to the UK – whether in cardboard boxes or plastic crates – is more than just an industrial dispute.

On the surface, it will be seen by some as a mere issue of modernizing or improving the banana transportation process, as they were once shipped in wrappings before the introduction of cardboard boxes. It can also be mistakenly regarded as an issue affecting only Saint Lucia. But this is more than all the above.

True, the plant manufacturing the cardboard boxes is based in Saint Lucia, as are the workers involved. But it’s also true that the plant is a joint venture between Venezuelan interests and the Windward Islands that has been the only source of income for over four dozen families mainly from the South of the island.

True, if customers aren’t satisfied – as argued by WINFRESH, the company that buys and sells Windward Islands bananas in the UK – the consequences can be negative. But there are always ways for companies to sensitize customers – especially when it’s another company — about the consequences of their decisions and choices.

At the local level, this matter has involved the National Workers Union (NWU), the Ministers and Ministries of Commerce, Agriculture and Economic Development.

At their last meeting the union, the company and the government ministers and departments all requested a postponement of the cut-off point for the transition from cardboard to plastic beyond the July 2018 date.

The company, established since 1971, is basically today struggling for its very survival as importation of plastic crates will erase the foundation on which it was established, with implications for management and staff.

The union, which has been representing WINERA employees for more than four decades, has recommended that instead of allowing the company to become a helpless victim of an irreversible business decision, the entities that own the company — including and especially the Governments of the Windward Islands — should quickly examine the feasibility of establishing a plastic crates production factory in Saint Lucia.

Such a decision would not only open the possibility to save threatened jobs, but also to stop a drainage of needed foreign exchange resources out of each of the Windward Islands, as none has such a factory.

A plastic-crate factory based in Saint Lucia, like WINERA, would serve the four islands and their collective sub-regional banana industry and the proposed change from cardboard to plastic would be facilitated without WINERA just sinking into a deep black hole.

WINFRESH, as a company, has piloted the islands through the changes in the banana export industry for decades and is well-steeped in understanding the implications of the decisions made by its UK and other European customers and business partners, especially since the islands lost their preferential treatment in the UK and Europe.

It maybe isn’t enough for the regional marketing company to sound like it’s singing the same sweet old warning song of ‘customer satisfaction’, especially in these times when companies operating internationally or across borders are more concerned about and sensible to how their businesses are seen when implemented elsewhere.

Companies today do not want to be associated with negative external effects of their actions, especially when the decisions may adversely affect helpless people in distant lands.

In these times of global environmental consciousness and sensitivity, there is also the funny ring to any argument to replace soluble cardboard with insoluble plastic, which is already choking the earth’s seas and a growing problem quickly consuming entire communities and cities.

It is therefore urgently necessary at this point, if they haven’t as yet, for the Windward Islands governments to take a collective look at this issue, which not only affects each country, but will also have implications for each, whatever the decision.

At stake are matters of economics and the environment, modernization and cost-effectiveness. But as always, industrial relations, jobs and future income possibilities for dozens of family breadwinners also do matter – which could have been the same problem in any other Windward Island if WINERA was based there.

The issue really needs urgent attention. After all, July isn’t at all far away!

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