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The Global Sweatshop: Supermarkets `have blocked fair trade plans'

BRITISH SUPERMARKETS have blocked attempts to set up a "fair trade" banana scheme that could save thousands of small farmers' jobs, the project's backers said yesterday.

The claim was made as The Independent reports today how workers fear intimidation and endanger their health on some of Central America's biggest banana plantations. Campaigners for the "fair trade" scheme say it could save the livelihoods of up to 15,000 small farmers who may go out of business if the Europen Union loses its trade war with the United States over bananas.

The scheme would give the farmers 15p for every pounds 1 British consumers spend on their bananas. At present they receive 7p, while workers on Costa Rican plantations receive just 3p. Phil Wells, director of the Fair Trade Foundation, said the main supermarkets were more concerned with quality and price than with ethical trading. "Fair trade can sustain the livelihoods of some of these growers, but the supermarkets only look at the bananas they get. One buyer told me I was asking him to pay more for worse quality," he said.

Some supermarkets believe the Windward Islands' small farmers should move out of bananas. The islands account for one-quarter of Britain's bananas and one-fifth of those come from their smaller farmers. Big US producers such as Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita could increase their market share if the EU is forced to end banana quotas.

"Fair trade" bananas grown in co-operatives where farmers and workers see a larger share of the profits than other banana growers are already on sale in Holland, Switzerland and Germany. In Switzerland they account for 11 per cent of the market.

Alistair Smith, co-ordinator of an organisation called Banana Link, which campaigns for better treatment for banana workers, said supermarkets received up to 50p per pounds 1 spent on organic bananas. "If we are talking about `fair trade' bananas, unless the price to the consumer is going to be ridiculous they are going to have to reduce their margins," he said.

A spokesman for Geest, which is 50 per cent owned by Windward Island farmers, said it believed its bananas were already "fair trade". A specific scheme could run into supply problems if a hurricane damaged crops from the area where it operated, he added.

Asda echoed Geest's view, saying all the bananas it sold were fairly traded. "We believe this is a `fair trade' situation where workers are being looked after. We are fully confident that all the measures that need to be in place are in place," a spokeswoman said.

Sainsbury's said it was in talks with the Fair Trade Foundation. "Those discussions are open and amicable and any suggestion that we are closed- minded about `fair trade' is completely wrong," a company spokesman said. Safeway said it was monitoring demand for fairly traded products and had joined the Ethical Trading Initiative.