Ministers are under pressure to explain why the levies are being charged, despite an announcement that a last-gasp deal was struck between the UK and Ghana on New Year’s Eve.
Both banana exporters in the developing country and UK shipping firms are losing money on deliveries – £20,000 a week, says one company – while the crisis continues.
“Thousands of jobs in rural areas will be put at risk,” the head of the Commons international trade committee has warned the government, in a letter seen by The Independent.
Before Christmas, ministers rejected calls for transitional measures to prevent tariffs, as talks with Ghana on a ‘rollover’ of an existing EU trade agreement went down to the wire.
The UK was accused of “bullying” the country into a deal – which Ghana believes would break its obligations to its neighbours in the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
George Kporye, manager of the Golden Exotics company, said it only learned on 1 January that – despite the “agreement” – it was moving onto punishing World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs.
A shipment from Ghana, due this weekend, was set to pay charges of £20-25,000, taking total tariffs imposed this month through the £100,000 barrier.
“Such punitive tariffs are clearly unsustainable and it is important that a solution is found as quickly as possible to relieve us of such a burden,” Mr Kporye said.
“If this issue continues for weeks, it will put the jobs of over three thousand workers mostly in rural communities at great risk.”
Keith Sadler, managing director of importers Compagnie Fruitiere UK, said his firm was paying weekly tariffs of £20,000, adding: “If you add that up, it would be £1m over a year. No business can operate with that level of extra costs.”
Warning it might have to turn its back on Ghana, he said: “This is a serious threat to the banana industry and it needs to be resolved before we have to make difficult decisions.”
“With businesses losing £20,000 each week, the longer this issue is left unresolved the more the costs mount and the more unsustainable it becomes, especially at a time when business is already suffering,” he has written.
Mr MacNeil pointed out that Ghana sends more than 40 per cent of exports to the UK, adding: “If importers are forced to move away from sourcing from Ghana, thousands of jobs in rural areas will be put at risk.”
Mr Kporye urged Ms Truss to “waive tariffs in the interim period or commit to refund them after the agreement has been signed”.
The Department for International Trade was unable to say when tariffs would be lifted – and blamed Ghana for failing to “engage with us fully until it was too late”.
“We share the Ghanaian government’s concern for their banana industry, and that is one of the reasons why we made an early and generous proposal to Ghana that would have guaranteed their continued and lasting access to the UK market, but they chose not to take this take up,” a spokesperson said.
“We are glad Ghana is working with us to reach an agreement, and the restoration of our trading terms is in sight. It is the responsibility of both our countries to work to resolve this issue as soon as possible.”
Ghana argued a rollover deal would have meant agreeing a different tariff for UK goods than its neighbours, undermining that customs union and badly damaging relationships.