North American fruit company Del Monte has prompted Guatemalan biggest banana workers’ union SITRABI to be more “flexible” if they want farms to remain open.
“Despite the bargaining deal that we secured with Del Monte in May, the relationship between companies and banana workers is still far from being easy,” said Noe Ramirez, General Secretary of SITRABI, in a recent visit to London.
The situation of banana workers’ unions in Guatemala is particularly dramatic. For decades, the coastal department of Izabal has been the centre of social struggles between banana multinationals and local trade unions. Since 2007, when banana union leader Marco Tulio Ramirez was assassinated, violence against union members has escalated. His brother Noè is now the new General Secretary of SITRABI, the country’s oldest private sector union. Despite his brother’s death and the murder of other twelve union leaders over the last eight years, Noè Ramirez has managed to keep the sector alive.
In Izabal nearly all 6000 banana workers employed by Chiquita and Del Monte are unionised. SITRABI has also managed to secure workers with a minimum wage and decent working conditions thanks to continuous collective bargaining with the trade companies.
Worrying reports, however, are coming from the Pacific South of the country, a sort of ‘black hole’ for trade unionism. The whole area appears to be controlled by paramilitary groups who have been violently repressing any attempt to organise workers. “There are 40,000 banana workers in the South who don’t have unions and continue to receive pays way under the minimum wage,” said Ramirez.
Because of what SITRABI has achieved in the North, fruit companies are now threatening to close the farms and move the production to the South, where workers are not unionised and bananas are cheaper.
Violence, impunity and cheap bananas
“A box of bananas costs $7 in the North and $5 in the South,” continued Ramirez. “Cheap bananas are convenient for the companies but terrible for the workers as they undermine the Izabal industry, where almost all production comes from unionised labour”.
The overproduction of bananas in the Pacific South is also having consequences on workers from Honduras and Nicaragua, the other two main exporters of fruit in Latin America.
The newly elected Guatemalan government does not seem keen on improving the situation of banana workers: “As workers we don’t have a lot of hope that the new government will help us,” said Ramirez. “And it’s not only about the government; the judicial system is equally responsible for the level of violence and impunity in the country.”
Despite the agricultural sector accounting for 38 percent of the labor force, unions are struggling to protect workers’ rights as they deal with continuous episodes of violence. In most cases the Labor courts are incapable of guaranteeing the respect of labour laws and the authors of the violence end up unpunished. Impunity is, in fact, one of the most serious problems affecting Guatemala.
When asked who foments the violence against trade unionists in the country, Banana Link activist Alistair Smith seems hesitant, “It’s hard to say.” – he explains – “There is no hard evidence. Some of the companies are not the innocents in this. They may not be directly involved in the violence but they are certainly involved in some illegal paramilitary-style groups who are actually the authors of the threats. But again, there is no legal evidence.” He continues, “Guatemalan unions have been trying to denounce these acts of violence by appealing to the public authorities of the country to investigate cases and bring people to justice but with very little results.”