Date: Fri, 10 Sep 1999 23:31:35 -0500 (CDT)
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Workers Bear Brunt of Banana Crisis
By Néfer Muñoz, IPS, 9 September 2000
SAN JOSE, Sep 9 (IPS) - Companies in Costa Rica have placed the burden of their economic woes, triggered by low international prices in the past few months, squarely on the shoulders of the workers, local trade unions complain.
The Coordinator of Banana Unions of Costa Rica (Cosiba) said companies were taking advantage of the current situation, in which the government is going easy on them, to crack down on trade unions and silence workers' demands.
"Black lists," threats issued by companies to pull out of a certain area and abandon plantations, the hiring of workers on a temporary basis to avoid the costs of social benefits, and harassment of organised employees are all part of the strategy, according to Cosiba.
"But we will not just sit here with our arms crossed; we are going to take measures," said Gilberth Bermúdez, secretary- general of the Union of Agricultural Plantation Workers, a member of Cosiba.
The troubles plaguing the banana sector of this Central American nation are the result of several factors, including the crash of prices, which plunged by as much as 60 percent in June on the east coast of the United States, one of Costa Rica's chief markets.
The agreement between two transnational corporations - Chiquita and Bandeco - to pay local growers 35 cents less per box of bananas is another significant element in the crisis.
But local trade unions say the troubles will eventually pass.
"Producers are taking advantage of (the crisis) to pressure the government to eliminate taxes on banana exports, which represent a major source of revenue for banana-growing communities," said trade unionist Ramón Barrantes.
Exporters are currently taxed 15 cents per box. A large part of the revenue goes to 10 municipalities on Costa Rica's Atlantic coast, where the banana plantations are located.
The latest figures released by Costa Rica's National Banana Corporation indicate that an 18.14-kg box of bananas presently fetches 5.00 to 7.50 dollars on the U.S. market and 10.79 to 14.03 dollars in the European Union.
The unions point out that now that the companies are in a difficult situation, they are asking the workers to make sacrifices, while they did nothing to improve the living conditions of their employees when sales were booming.
According to the Promoter of Foreign Trade, a government agency, the sector exported 630 million dollars worth of bananas in 1998 alone.
But this year has not been a stable one for Costa Rica's banana- growers, with the crisis aggravated by excess production in Ecuador, the world's top exporter of bananas.
Another problem is the uncertain outlook with respect to the European market, which is to overhaul its banana import regime as of Jan 1, 2000, according to a World Trade Organisation resolution.
Costa Rica is almost sure to lose the fixed quota of 25 percent of sales it is now guaranteed by the European Union.
Local trade unionists say workers have borne the brunt of the crisis, as highlighted by 1,200 recent lay-offs.
"At this time, the main abuse committed by the companies is that, although unions are legal in theory, in practice they are not letting us work," William Barahona, secretary-general of the Limón Union of Agricultural Workers, told IPS.
Barahona said union leaders were not allowed to enter companies to hold meetings with workers, and that anyone seen talking to trade unionists was put on a black list, to be sacked and not re- hired.
At a round table last month, Martín Zúñiga, coordinator of the Banana Institutional Council, which groups local and transnational producers, denied the existence of black lists and the persecution of unionists. (END/IPS/tra-so/nms/ag/sw/99)
Origin: Montevideo/LABOUR-COSTA RICA/
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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