Date: Fri, 22 Oct 1999 16:10:57 -0500 (CDT)
Urgent Guatemala banana alert
From Campaign for Labor Rights, 21 October 1999
Del Monte banana union leaders forced at gunpoint to resign and flee for their lives in Guatemala; U.N. to hold press conference
Banana union leaders in Guatemala leading a fight against Del Monte's firing of nearly 1,000 workers were surrounded at their union headquarters by 200 heavily armed men on October 13, threatened with death and forced to resign and abandon their homes. Details of the harrowing experience were not made public until this week, when the leaders were able to secure safe houses in Guatemala City along with their families.
The U.N. agency MINUGUA describes the incident as the most serious violation of human rights in Guatemala since the killing of Archbishop Juan Jose Gerardi. MINUGUA will hold a press conference in Guatemala City on October 22 to report the findings of its investigation and its concerns regarding paramilitary forces operating in violation of the Peace Accords.
The banana union leaders remain in fear for their lives and have asked for urgent international action to ensure their safety and those of 3,000 banana workers who remain on or near the plantations. They have also called on Del Monte Fresh Produce to ensure their safety, immediately reject the forced resignations, respect the union contract and reinstate the fired workers.
Guatemalan Labor Minister Luis Linares released a statement an October 19 statement also calling on the company to reject the forced resignations and declaring that the firings were illegal. He has subsequently been attacked in the Guatemalan press by business leaders.
On September 27, Bandegua, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce, notified nearly 900 workers from the district of Bobos in Morales, Guatemala that they were being dismissed and that three plantations would be rented out to independent producers. Bandegua gave as its reasoning the depressed prices of bananas on the world market. The union representing Bandegua workers, SITRABI, rejected the sudden layoffs as a violation of its collective bargaining agreement, but the company refused to negotiate. Mediation by the Guatemalan Labor Minister, Luis Linares, was met with complete intransigence by the company, although the union even offered to renegotiate its contract.
The union, which represents not only the nearly 1,000 workers in the Bobos district but also 3,000 Bandegua workers in nearby Motagua district, then held a general assembly at which it was decided that on the morning of October 14 all Motagua workers would simultaneously exercise a provision of their contract allowing any union member to request 10 days of unpaid absence.
Instead, on the evening of October 13, two hundred heavily armed men with high caliber weapons and assault weapons came to the union hall, grabbed two members of the executive committee who were present and forced them at gunpoint to drive to the home of the general secretary, who was dragged out of his house and beaten before being taken back to the union hall. Again at gunpoint, one of the union leaders was forced to call two other members of the executive committee to "request" their presence at the union hall. They complied, only to find the union hall surrounded by the armed men. The five executive committee members of the union who were now captive were General Secretary Marel Martinez, Secretaries of Conflicts Enrique Villeda and Fernando Salguero, Secretary of Organization Jorge Palma, and President of the Advisory Board Lionel McIntosh, also a candidate for mayor of Morales with the left-of-center alliance Alianza Nueva Nacion. Another 25 or so workplace union representatives also were present.
According to a report from those who have interviewed the union leaders:
The first to speak was the president of the [local] Chamber of Commerce who stated that Bandegua had informed them that it would leave Guatemala if the demonstration were to take place on Oct. 14. He informed the union members that this could not happen, that the town of Morales would become a ghost town and for that reason they had to resign from the union.
Then the "commander" of the armed individuals spoke and stated that there was only one way to correct the problem and it was to kill all of the union leaders. He ordered that the leaders be photographed so that they could be identified at any time in future. He stated that the union leaders would have to give a message on the community radios instructing the workers that they should not attend the demonstration the next day and telling the fired workers from Bobos to collect their severance pay and get out of the plantations. The workers from Motagua were to present themselves to their supervisors for work the next day as normal.
Enrique Villeda and Marel Martinez were taken to local radio stations where at gunpoint they were forced to air messages to the workers in Bobos and Motagua that the union had reached an agreement with Bandegua, that there was no reason to attend the demonstration the next day and that Motagua workers should go to work.
After the radio transmissions, they were returned to the union hall where a lawyer was now being held by force. The armed men instructed him to draft the union leaders' resignations telling him what to write and cursing him violently when he tried to comment on the legality of what they were insisting that he include in the draft.
As the lawyer was drafting the resignations one of the armed individuals indicated that a telex had come in with instructions that the union leadership had to resign from Bandegua also. A model draft of the resignation letter was given to the lawyer.
After the resignations were completed the union reps were herded into the general assembly hall where the armed individuals conducted a session in which they mocked the leadership, ridiculed them and made dehumanizing comments about them. They also forced them to make filmed statements indicating that the resignations were voluntary and that they appreciated the help of the people of Morales in making them come to their senses and desist from their union activities. At one point they were instructed to hold a sign that said "If they want blood, blood will flow."
At 2:00 am, the armed individuals gave them their final message that the union leaders were to disappear from Morales and never return, that they would be murdered should they stay, and then they left.
Some of the union leaders then made their way to Guatemala City where they sought and received assistance from MINUGUA to obtain safe passage for the remaining union leaders and their families. (Note: While union leaders were in hiding and trying to get to safe houses in Guatemala City, Guatemala press used the statements and filming obtained at gunpoint to paint a picture of SITRABI's demise and capitulation to Bandegua with key business leaders trashing SITRABI in the press.)
The report adds:
"It is important to note that the SITRABI union hall is located 400 meters from the national police station in the center of Morales. At no time during the entire episode in which there were numerous vehicles and armed men surrounding the union hall did the national police make any effort to investigate what was taking place." And:
"The day after the resignations were signed Bandegua provided trucks to the fired workers to remove them from the Bobos plantations and also proceeded to accept the resignations of the union leadership."
After meetings with U.S. embassy officials, local union leaders, MINUGUA, human rights representatives, the AFL-CIO and US/LEAP, SITRABI union leaders have now put forth a list of demands and asked for international support. However, they have not yet appeared in public due to security concerns.
Peace Accord Violation: MINUGUA, the U.N. agency monitoring implementation of Guatemala's Peace Accords, has said that the use of paramilitary forces in Morales makes this the second most serious breach of the Peace Accords outside of the killing of Archbishop Gerardi. The failure of the National Police to intervene and the use of heavily armed local "security" forces is considered a serious challenge to the integrity of the Peace Accords, according to local human rights analysts who are calling on the Guatemalan government to move quickly to arrest and prosecute those responsible..
Regional Banana Crisis: The Morales incident also takes place during a time of grave crisis for banana workers throughout the region, a crisis that may have more long-term repercussions on the banana sector than Hurricane Mitch did a year ago. The banana market is glutted, chiefly because of sharply rising exports from the world's largest exporter, Ecuador, whose low-wage workers are not organized. Multinational banana companies and their supply chains are responding to very low prices on the world market by cutting costs, shifting banana production to African palm, moving slowly on post-Mitch rehabilitation and suspending or firing thousands of workers. Banana workers and unions are under pressure throughout the region, including in Costa Rica and Honduras as well as in Guatemala, and unions are concerned that the banana companies will use the grave economic crisis as an opportunity to break unions. These concerns have proven justified in the case of SITRABI.
Del Monte Fresh Produce Responsibility: While there is no evidence of Bandegua's involvement in the Morales incident, local analysts say it is impossible for Bandegua not to have at least known what was going on in a small community like Morales. Most damning for Bandegua is that the company has accepted the resignations as legitimate, according to the Labor Minister, who has declared the resignations invalid and said that the firings that initiated the confrontation were a violation of the union's contract.
If you respond to the action requests in this alert, please notify Campaign for Labor Rights by sending the following notice (not this entire alert!!!) to us by email <CLR@igc.org> or fax (541) 431-0523 (check one or both boxes):
Guatemala embassy contacted [ ]
1. Call (202) 745-4952, email <email@example.com> or fax (202) 745-1908 the Guatemala Embassy in Washington, DC.
2. Call (305) 520-8400 or fax (305) 442-1059 Fresh Del Monte Produce.
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