The IUF has called on the European Union to renegotiate its new banana import regime, scheduled to go into effect as early as April 1. According to IUF general secretary Ron Oswald, the EU's transitional tariff quota system of "first come, first served (FCFS)" poses an immediate threat to the livelihoods of thousands of banana workers around the world.

What is "first come, first served?"

The final operational details of how FCFS will be implemented have not yet been determined but the guiding principle is clear. FCFS will require banana exporters to bid weekly or biweekly for a share of a weekly or biweekly quota that will be established by the EU. The bids will, in theory, have to be made after bananas are already in transit on ships going to Europe and before the quota for the new period is announced. If the total volume of bananas that arrive exceeds the new quota, excess bananas will have to be sold in other, non-EU "transit" markets, e.g. Central and Eastern Europe, at significantly lower prices than those paid within the EU. Companies which produce bananas at the lowest possible cost will face the least risk from the potentially lower prices for sales outside the EU and are therefore best placed to exploit FCFS.

FCFS also eliminates country quotas for Latin America and replaces them with a general quota that covers the entire region. Under the current system, exporting countries in Latin America have specific country quotas that enable higher labour-cost producers to have access to the European market without having to compete directly against, for example, Ecuador's cheaper bananas. Under FCFS, Latin American countries will have to compete directly against each other.

The new import regime, says Oswald in a letter to EU trade commissioner Pascal Lamy, can only encourage a crude "race to the bottom" that will almost certainly benefit those countries and companies that seek to produce bananas at the lowest possible cost. The social consequences of this decision will inevitably be detrimental to workers, their communities and the environment.

"Social dumping on a world scale is already an established fact of life for banana workers", writes Oswald. "FCFS can only accelerate the process, and puts at risk even the limited social gains that banana workers have achieved over many years of struggle through their trade unions."

"It is no coincidence that Ecuador is the only banana-producing country to have voiced support for FCFS," according to Oswald, "while other Latin American producing countries and the ACP countries that the earlier banana regime was ostensibly set up to protect have all voiced strong objections and concerns. Conditions for banana workers in Ecuador are generally conceded to be the worst in Latin America. Workers' rights are ignored or trampled on as a matter of course and environmental concerns do not feature highly amongst the priorities of Ecuador's principal national producers. Smaller producers in Ecuador have not been so enthusiastic about "first come, first served" since they see themselves amongst the likely victims of the larger producers who are best placed to take full advantage of the new regime."

Oswald went on to say that "Whilst nowhere are banana workers treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, many of them have, through decades of continuous trade union struggle, been able to limit the level of exploitation and repression which have historically characterized conditions in the sector. These workers and their trade unions need protection and support. FCFS will undercut at a stroke their efforts to win decency and dignity by handing a massive market advantage to those who would rob workers of their most basic rights. The effect will be to drive down living and working conditions in an industry where workers in the best of cases still live in relative poverty.

"Opposition to FCFS is not limited to corporate or government interests. Our position is rooted in the IUF's fundamental responsibility to defend the basic rights and the conditions of work of our thousands of members in the banana sector. For this reason, and for this reason alone, the IUF will mobilize its resources and its affiliates in Europe and around the world to oppose 'first come, first served'. We are calling on the EU to return to the negotiating table and come back with a fair proposal that takes into account the interests of banana workers around the world and the many thousands of small producers dependent on the industry. Encouraging social justice and sustained development, not 'WTO compliance', must be the principles which govern market access. For this reason, FCFS must be opposed by IUF members, European consumers and European politicians of all persuasions."