Good friends slip on a banana skin

Iraq is not the only target for US sanctions; so is Britain, at least as far as sheep's milk, candle

The French journalist could barely contain his satisfaction. It was the day after the United States had stopped bombing Iraq, with the able assistance of the RAF, and Britain's little-noticed reward was the announcement in Washington of a list of trade sanctions against the European Union, which will actually bear heaviest on America's most loyal ally. This is in pursuit of a trade war which, if it goes ahead, will be one of the most grotesque if not malign of recent times. If no solution is found, we are just a month away from a war between the US and EU. Over bananas.

This absurd conflict is over the import licences of bananas. Former European colonies (mainly British and French) get slightly preferential treatment over central American producers exporting bananas to the EU. The banana is a crop which the US does not export to Europe - but many of the Latin American bananas, or"dollar bananas", happen to be grown on estancias owned by US companies. The crop plays a minuscule part in annual trade between Europe and America; the quarrel over its export to the EU will cost jobs in British industries whose only connection with the fruit is in the lunchboxes of its employees.

It all makes for a notable test for the World Trade Organisation, set up in 1994, which is supposed to handle disputes like this but which may have expected its first big challenge between two of the world's largest trading blocs to arise from something rather more significant, particularly in a time of international economic crisis. Our government's much vaunted closeness to Bill Clinton has availed us absolutely nothing. We will be hit hardest by the American sanctions imposed as a result of the dispute. When it comes down to it, Washington knows on which side its fruit is peeled.

Hence the Frenchman's suave question to the European Commission in Brussels: "Are the sanctions a mark of the special relationship?" he asked smugly. "Or is this Britain's reward for supporting the United States' action in the Gulf?"

The Commission estimates that the list of unilateral sanctions the US government announced on 21 December will cost industries in the European Union about £350 million a year, nearly £85 million of that in the UK alone. The products targeted for the imposition of 100 per cent tariffs are a bizarre mix whose only uniting characteristic is that none of them has the remotest link with bananas, or any other fruit for that matter.

In the ponderously exact prose of the US Trade Department, it includes: "Pecorino cheese, from sheep's milk, in original loaves, not suitable for grating, sweet biscuits, bath preparations, other than bath salts, candles, tapers and the like, handbags, with or without shoulder straps, articles of a kind normally carried in the pocket or handbag with outer surface of reinforced or laminated plastics, uncoated felt paper and paperboard in rolls or sheets, folding cartons, printed cards (except postcards) . . ."

Take that! The rationale in Washington for the list is that it represents the equivalent value in trade of what it estimates US banana companies are losing in Europe. What is really happening, though, is that the American administration is threatening the eclectic mix of goods in pursuit of the right of its own multinational fruit exporters, chiefly the Cincinatti-based company Chiquita, to obtain what would effectively be monopoly rights over the 3.7 million tonnes of bananas consumed in the EU each year.

The EU's banana regime has long been a source of contention. It was devised to give a certain amount of protection to bananas produced in former colonies, not just in the West Indies but also places such as the Ivory Coast and the Canaries. The American view is that this has handicapped access to European markets for the "dollar bananas" - thus threatening the sacred profit-making potential of US companies. This has not stopped those companies cornering 70 per cent of the banana trade with the EU. As Sir Leon Brittan, the EU Trade Commissioner, sniffed: "They don't seem to be doing too badly out of it."

The US itself does not export a single banana to Europe. Politics is behind its stance: the rhetoric from the US has increased markedly since November's Congressional elections. Although the US first started muttering about bananas under George Bush, it is the Clinton administration that has really pursued the matter. When it made a complaint to the WTO, within 24 hours, the Chiquita chairman, Carl H Lindner Jnr, who had previously made donations only to the Republican Party, suddenly started giving away money to the Democrats as well.

Lindner is a religious man and one who apparently likes to give out gold-embossed cards bearing his philosophy: "I like to do my giving while I'm living so I know where it's going." His company is estimated to be worth $14 billion.

If his company and its fellows such as Del Monte get their way, small, independent banana-growers in some of the most impoverished islands of the Caribbean are likely to be pushed out of business. They may then turn to other, more profitable, products with a readier market in the US, such as cocaine. Some believe that Chiquita's complaint followed its ill-advised decision to sell its Caribbean plantations six years ago.

The American multinationals produce their bananas - larger and less sweet than Caribbean ones - on large estates in central and Latin America where their record as employers is distinctly unsavoury.

Peter Scher, the US administration's special trade ambassador, disavows any notion of wanting to harm the Caribbean banana trade. The regrettable necessity was that Europe had to be punished for not opening its markets sufficiently in accordance with a ruling by the WTO in Geneva. "We are showing there is a cost to pay for Europe's failure to comply with its obligations," he said. "This is about a much broader issue than bananas. It is about whether the WTO system will work. If it fails, there will be pressure in this country to act unilaterally."

The WTO panel ruled in September 1997 that the US was justified in its complaint that the EU's fiendishly complicated banana import regulations amounted to unfair discrimination and that the rules must be changed. The Caribbean countries were not allowed to give evidence as they were not a direct party to the issue. The panel, chaired by a former US congressman, contained a Japanese representative but no one from the developing world.

The EU claims it has now changed its rules in ten respects. The US contends that not enough has been done to make access fair. Bananas merely head a rising number of complaints from US producers against the EU and its regulatory approach over issues such as genetically modified crops and meat reared using hormones and antibiotics.

Sir Leon claims the US is defying the spirit of the WTO by imposing unilateral duties. The US claims it is entitled to do so because the EU failed to meet its responsibilities by obeying the WTO ruling against it. The only thing standing in the way of hostilities is a request by Ecuador that the WTO panel should reconvene to decide whether the EU's revised regulations do indeed comply with the ruling.

That will be a big test of the WTO's authority. Should European consumers be free to choose bananas from the Windward Islands? Or should an elderly American billionaire be licensed to extend his empire as a domestic political trade-off? One is tempted to say that it's a banana skin on which the WTO should not be allowed to slip.

Stephen Bates is European affairs editor of the "Guardian"

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium

Getty
Show Hide image

“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium