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Anti-union bananas

By Jacky Delorme, ICFTU Online..., 204/991029/jd, 29 October 1999

Terrorist raid and death threats to the leaders of SITRABI (the banana trade union). Del Monte in the dock. The United Nations demand an enquiry. A dossier given further weight by the complaint the ICFTU has already filed with the ILO.

Brussels, 29 October (ICFTU OnLine): Violations of the collective agreement, mass dismissals, refusal to negotiate, blackmail by lock-out, trade unionists mistreated by paramilitaries, false press announcements, etc. Bandegua, a subsidiary of Del Monte, one of the main multinationals in the banana sector, bears a heavy responsibility in the events that have just taken place in Guatemala. Here are the facts.

27 September. Bandegua informed its personnel of its decision to sack 918 workers in its plantations in the district of Bobos (Morales). The SITRABI trade union, representing several thousand people employed in the Del Monte banana plantations, immediately denounced this decision, taken in total violation of the labour agreements. During the days that followed, Bandegua's management remained inflexible, despite the goodwill of the trade union which expressed a readiness to make concessions and despite offers of mediation by Guatemalan Labour Minister Luis Linares. As a result, following a general meeting, SITRABI decided to place pressure on the company by calling on workers to stop going to (if politically OK, "asking its workers to boycott") the banana plantations as from 14 October.

But on the evening of the 13th, 200 armed men burst into the trade unionists' premises. The five members of the SITRABI Executive Committee had been brought there by force. At gunpoint, the trade union leaders were forced to sign their resignations. Two of them were then taken to local radio stations to read out a press release stating that agreement had been reached between the trade union and the company, and that the call for action the next day was unfounded. Threatened with execution, beaten and humiliated by the paramilitaries, the trade unionists were released in the middle of the night with orders to disappear from the region. Finally they found refuge - along with their families - with MINUGUA, the UN agency tasked with controlling the application of the peace agreements in Guatemala.

The next day, as if ignorant of the previous day's events, despite their serious nature, Bandegua accepted their "resignations" and speeded up the departure of the hundreds of sacked workers, organising their transfer by truck. When the paramilitary aggression was made public, Bandegua bought a full page in a local newspaper to condemn the threats and the violence, and to state that it was in no way involved.

But the trade unionists have little doubt as to the company's responsibility. During their detention, the militants were forced to listen to the president of the regional chamber of commerce. He justified the terrorist raid from an economic viewpoint, saying that Bandegua had told him it would end its activities in Guatemala if the work stoppage did in fact take place. SITRABI also denounces the behaviour of the police. The trade union's premises are just 400 metres from the central police station at Morales, but at no point during the coup de force did the police seek to find out what was happening, even though there were numerous vehicles at the site and armed men were patrolling the vicinity. Yesterday, 28 October, the UN peace mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) called for an in-depth enquiry, adding that it is "essential that these acts, which constitute one of the most serious violations of human rights in the country since the signing of the peace accords, do not remain unpunished by the law".

In a letter to Guatemala's president, Mr Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, ICFTU's inter-American regional organisation (ORIT) denounces these "manifest violations of fundamental rights (...) international labour standards, and international human rights treaties and conventions, as well as the Constitution and other laws of the Republic of Guatemala." For the ICFTU/ORIT, these events are a sad reminder of a period which appeared to be consigned to the past, when the banana companies laid down their own law and influenced every aspect of the country's life. The international trade union movement is calling on the government to do everything possible to ensure that this barbarous act does not remain unpunished, and to ensure the physical and moral safety of the trade unionists and their families. As soon as it was informed of the facts, the ICFTU also passed on this information to the ILO in addition to the complaint already filed earlier by the ICFTU with the ILO's Committee for Trade Union Freedoms for violations by the same company of conventions 87 and 98. In another move, the IUF, the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers, keen to mark its solidarity with the SITRABI trade unionists, began negotiations this week with Del Monte management.

This is not the first time that a multinational company active in the Latin American plantations has been called to task. Behind the dispute between the United States and the European Union on the liberalisation of banana exports, the major companies - Chiquita, Dole, Del Monte, Fyffes - are waging a "dirty war" against the banana plantation trade unions. In an OnLine of 11 March 1999, the ICFTU, with the help of the IUF, listed a series of serious violations of trade union rights in these plantations: exploitation of migrant workers, dismissal of trade unionists, arrests, etc.

Since the late 1980s, the relative stability of the banana market - the world's fourth largest area of agricultural production - has given way to frantic competition between the multinationals. Concerned only to increase their profits and not by the socio-economic and environmental impact of their presence in Latin America, these major producers have taken advantage of the crisis in the world banana market and more recently of the damage cause by hurricane Mitch to pare back or eliminate a certain number of social guarantees won previously by the trade unions. As a result, "solidarismo" is finding a fertile soil in the banana sector. This movement, dreamed up by the multinationals to counter the action of the free trade unions by usurping their place, is particularly well-rooted in the Costa Rica banana plantations, whereas until now, in Guatemala, the trade unions have managed to resist it.