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The forgotten victims of the banana war

ICFTU Online, 052/990311/LD, 11 March 1999

Brussels, March 11 1999 (ICFTU OnLine): While the United States and the European Union are engaged in a trial of strength over the banana trade, the multinationals running the plantations in Central America are carrying out their own "dirty war" against the banana workers' trade unions and, taking advantage of the effects of Hurricane Mitch, are further diminishing already deplorable working conditions.

That is what the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) claims, having identified, with the help of the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers (IUF), a whole range of serious trade union rights violations in the banana plantations of Central America.

The ICFTU has just learnt of the arrest in Guatemala of two banana union leaders from the CorporaciĆ³n Bananera Sociedad Anonima (COBSA), a Guatemalan company which supplies exclusively to the multinational Dole. According to trade union sources, Julian Guisar Garcia, secretary of the COBSA trade union, and Marvin Leon Ceron Fernandez, leader of the trade union at the "Dublin" plantation, were arrested on March 7 and 4 respectively by members of the Guatemalan police. The ICFTU says that a representative of the COBSA security service assisted in the arrest of Marvin Fernandez. The arrests followed uncorroborated accusations by the company that the trade unionists had caused material damage with menaces. The COBSA recently dismissed 465 trade unionists, despite a court ruling against it, and the IUF has reported attacks by armed groups against trade union members and sympathisers.

The Del Monte multinational, also present in Guatemala, threatened to transfer production to plantations in Indonesia if workers refused to renounce some of their acquired rights.

Relocation has also been threatened in Honduras by the other banana giant, Chiquita, which last February gave the banana workers' union an ultimatum, saying it would leave the country if workers refused to sign a new collective agreement in which some of the guarantees secured previously by their union had been removed. The international trade union pressure exerted by the IUF did serve to re-open negotiations however, although packers, mainly women, were informed that they could not expect their jobs back before the end of 1999.

In Costa Rica, the banana producers took advantage of the wave of migrations following Hurricane Mitch to hire Nicaraguan and Honduran workers on their plantations. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly "illegal", had no other choice than to accept insecure jobs and exploitative conditions, notes the ICFTU. A coalition of producers, members of the government and the Church is about to secure legal recognition from parliament for the solidarista organisations. These pro-employer organisations are virtually waging war on the trade union movement in Costa Rica, in their efforts to replace it. According to the ICFTU, despite the International Labour Organisation's repeated condemnation of the solidarista movement as an attack on the right to form trade unions, the Costa Rican parliament is preparing to open a debate on April 1 which could lead to its official recognition. IUF affiliates also report fresh attempts to set up solidarista organisations in Guatemala where the trade unions have previously been able to resist the spread of this form of anti-trade unionism.

In Panama police raided a plantation last January belonging to a subsidiary of Chiquita. Workers were ordered to produce their identity papers and six of them were taken away and beaten up. The Armuelles Fruit Company, a Chiquita subsidiary, was the subject of a complaint to the Labour Ministry about the unfair dismissals of 28 workers last December. The Armuelles Fruit Company is well-known to the labour inspectors, having been fined several times for refusing to cooperate with them. One of the charges against it concerns the death of a worker, a case which has yet to be clarified.

In reacting recently to the dispute between the United Sates and the European Union over the banana trade the ICFTU General Secretary commented that "so far no-one has mentioned the serious social problems which lie behind this dispute". Ron Oswald, General Secretary of the IUF, stated that "the trade system is threatened by trade sanctions because politically well-connected multinationals, such as Chiquita, del Monte and Fyffes, have pushed governments into being their champions in a crude battle for market share in consuming countries". The two organisations have asked the World Trade Organisation to take social concerns into consideration when examining the dispute. They have called for an international programme to improve the observance of labour and environmental standards in Central America and to broaden the employment base in the Caribbean.

For the joint ICFTU-IUF statement see OnLine50.

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