Historic moment in Costa Rican labour history

By Bert Schouwenburg

We are grateful to Bert Schouwenburg and to Banana Link for permission to reproduce this article. It was first published in The Morning Star who did not reply to our request for permission to reproduce the article. It was later produced in the first edition of the Banana Trade Blog which is produced by Banana Link (www.bananalink.org.uk )

Trade Union leaders are no stranger to hyperbole but when public sector union, ANEP’s General Secretary, Albino Vargas told delegates at the annual general assembly of SITRAP  (Agricultural Plantation Workers Union) that the event came at a historic moment in Costa Rica’s labour history, he was not exaggerating.

The assembly was held on January 20th [2019] in the heart of Limón’s banana growing zone at the Pococí Expo Centre in Guápiles. The 700 SITRAP members and their families were bussed in from all over the region during an operation that, for some, commenced at 3.30am to ensure that everyone was present for breakfast and an 8am start. Previous assemblies had been held at a much smaller venue in Siquirres where SITRAP have their premises, and before that in the main hall of their building itself when active membership of the union was at its lowest ebb.

GMB’s relationship with SITRAP began in 2003 under the auspices of NGO Banana Link’s ‘Union to Union’ programme aimed at establishing direct links with workers in Latin America’s tropical fruit plantations. SITRAP was in dire straits, its membership decimated by a sophisticated and ruthless campaign, headed up by the Costa Rican government, to drive trade unions out of the banana industry altogether. In the early 1980s, the then powerful unions’ fight for better working conditions prompted the employers to close down all their farms on the Pacific coast and throw thousands of people out of work. In a sustained propaganda exercise the closures of what were uneconomic plantations was blamed on trade union militancy and intransigence.

To this day, criticising the unions for the Pacific coast closures is an integral part of the banana producers’ strategy to dissuade workers from forming and joining them. Aided and abetted by the San José dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church, who have described them as being the work of the devil, they have spread the doctrine of ‘Solidarismo’, a concept enshrined in Costa Rican law whereby workers are encouraged to elect representatives to ‘permanent committees’ who then conclude ‘direct agreements’ with management to the exclusion of independent trade unions. Needless to say, these agreements are presented to the committees on a take it or leave it basis with no room for negotiation. Solidarista associations have been formed throughout the length and breadth of not just the banana industry but also in plantations growing pineapples of which Costa Rica is the world’s number one exporter. Where union organisation appears, workers are harassed, intimidated and, if they do not renounce their membership, are sacked and blacklisted.

One of GMB’s first initiatives was to raise funds so that SITRAP could complete much needed renovations to their building in Siquirres, a successful project that led to the assembly hall being dedicated to the late Brian Weller, a much-loved activist from London, in whose name the money was collected. This was followed by a memorandum of understanding between the unions and a two year funding agreement that kept SITRAP afloat and gave them breathing space to build their organisational capacity in an extremely hostile environment.

Slowly, but incrementally, SITRAP built its membership base in hostile multinational company farms belonging to Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole and also in plantations owned by vehemently anti-union national companies such as the Acon Group who made sure that the union could not make the sufficient inroads needed in order to reach the density required to trigger recognition, by sacking members under any pretext. However, a significant breakthrough occurred in January, 2016 when, after an 18 year struggle, the Labour Reform Process Law was put onto the statute book. This landmark piece of legislation dramatically speeded up the glacial pace of Costa Rica’s labour code and enabled workers to bring claims of unfair dismissal to court within days and empowered judges to order immediate reinstatement pending a full merits hearing. At a stroke, the legislation deprived employers’ ability to arbitrarily dismiss trade unionists at will, safe in the knowledge that cases brought against them could take years to be heard. Unsurprisingly, private sector employers are lobbying furiously to have the law overturned.

The cumulative effects of SITRAP’s continuing membership drive, the space afforded to it by the passing of the new law, and the pressure being brought to bear by motivated consumers in European markets allowed the union to make members to such an extent that, after 9 months of negotiation, it was able to sign a recognition agreement in a Del Monte plantation just before the assembly, the first such agreement to be concluded since the 1980s. It was this that prompted ANEP’s General Secretary to comment on the historic significance of the moment.

Banana production in Costa Rica, and elsewhere in Latin America, faces an uncertain future. The purchasing power of European and North American retailers has squeezed the margins of the multinational producers who are no longer the dominant force that they once were. The downward pressure on costs has been passed on to workers who find themselves the victims of a race to the bottom as producers react to the price wars of major supermarkets, particularly in the UK. The huge mono-crop plantations, drenched in pesticides, are environmentally disastrous and are prone to disease. So far, the deadly fusarium wilt virus has been kept at bay in Latin America but if it takes hold, that could be the beginning of the end for the industry as we know it and explains why serious thought is now being given to multi-cropping and diversification away from the ubiquitous Cavendish banana that is intensively farmed throughout.

For the thousands of workers in the Costa Rican banana industry, it is essential that they have a collective voice that can be heard, however the industry develops. SITRAP’s re-emergence as a significant player is therefore vitally important and they deserve the continued support of unions like GMB, and UNISON who have also given valuable assistance, especially as so much of the fruit their members produce finds its way into the UK’s fruit bowls.  

ANEP have produced the video report of the event below, which includes contributions from the General Secretary of SITRAP, Didier Leiton, Alistair Smith of Banana Link, and Bert Schouwenburg, who represented the GMB at the meeting.

700 agricultural workers attend historic SITRAP assembly from Banana Link on Vimeo.



Bert Schouwenburg
11 February 2019

Costa Rica: the country that turns its back on the consequences of pineapple cultivation

The following comment was received from DELFINO.CR in Costa Rica on 23rd January 2019. It may now be a little out-of-date but its subject typifies the attitude of the Costa Rican government to the dangers of mono-cultivation and over-use of pesticides over the last two decades. Beware the country that internationally paints itself so green whilst at the same time turning a blind eye to the contamination and health risks it creates through its pineapple mono-cultivation.

Key words: Costa Rica; pineapple cultivation; pesticides (bromacil); water source contamination.

Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court ordered six institutions to initiate the clean-up of six water sources which supply residents of Río Cuarto de Alajuela and which were contaminated with the herbicide bromacil. It has been established that all of these institutions knew of the existence of complaints about pollution risks for various water sources in the affected communities and, well, they did nothing.

The declaration was made as a result of a protective measure imposed by the Associations of Aqueducts and Sewers of Santa Rita, La Tabla and Santa Isabel de Río Cuarto de Alajuela which published the following communication:

“The Magistrates declared with reference to the resource that for years the institutions involved – the Costa Rican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers, the Administrative Environmental Court, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, the Fitosanitary Service of State and the Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle Ranching – knew of the existence of complaints about the pollution risks in diverse springs in the affected communities, but despite that, they failed to comply with their obligation which was to coordinate the environmental action between the institutions and to exercise the precautionary principle necessary for this type of problem. What happened in this crisis of drinkable water was contamination by agro-chemicals in the Brenes, Nicrodal, La Flor del Acueducto de Santa Rita, la Flor del Acueducto de Santa Isabel, La Culebra and Nicolás Rodríguez springs.”

  • As a result of this, the listed institutions must immediately begin the process of cleansing and eliminating agro-chemical residues from the water sources which supply the communities of Santa Rita, La Tabla and Santa Isabel de Río Cuarto de Alajuela; it is well known that in the past these were contaminated with bromacil, but nobody did anything about it.
  • Pineapple plantations, pineapple plantations, pineapple plantations, and again! And the State looks away – again. Because as if the medicine hadn’t already been bitter enough to swallow, the day has come when the new edition of the ‘Cards on the Table’ programme, in which this time RT International decided to test the water and to remind us of the very high price that the country pays for its exports of pineapples.
  • The programme, which is in the round table dialogue style, includes the presence of a UNDP official in sustainable development and resilience, Kifah Sasa, environmentalist Mauricio Álvarez of the Ecologist Federation of Costa Rica, and the environmental lawyer and legislative advisor, Sofia Barquero. They discussed the consequences of the billions of dollars which enter the country from the cultivation of pineapples. These are consequences which everyone talks about but which we ignore, preferring to look in the other direction.
  • According to the UNDP data provided by Sasa, Costa Rica produces 50% of the fresh pineapple consumed in North America and 50% of that consumed in Europe. What makes it so attractive for the consumer is that what we produce is sweet enough for it to be marketed elsewhere. Twenty years ago, we used to split our tongues eating pineapples. Well now with our pineapples that doesn’t happen and it has become an export of preference. What happens is that now these consequences aren’t felt by our tongues but in the environmental impacts and the denunciations against bad labour practices which are associated with this cultivation.
  • “In Costa Rica the pineapple plantation which becomes the norm is the exception,” said Sofía Barquero in a warning that couldn’t be sharper: namely that by putting 58,000 hectares under pineapple production, we are trampling the environment underfoot. As well as the denunciations about bromacil and multiple pollutants associated with this mono-cultivation, we can add that last year the UNDP reported that between the years 2000 and 2015, 5,565.9 hectares of forest cover were lost to pineapple production, to which we should add the erosion of soil, the loss of cattle through the pineapple fly and the non-compliance with labour laws, already well-known.
  • In fact, a denunciation has been made this very week on the Twitter account of the Executive President of INAMU and the Ministry of the Condition of Women, Patricia Mora, which announces that: “The situation of women in many of the mono-cultivation plantations of our country (pineapple, banana, yucca and melon plantations) is one of absolute disrespect of their labour rights. Since I have been in the National Institute of Women, INAMU has held meetings with women workers in this sector who have presented me with their denunciations and looked for support in defence of their rights.”
  • Right at the beginning of this year we can tell you of the denunciations made by the workers of the Bellavista Packers on the northern border, who told us that they had been sacked for having been affiliated to the union, and that they had even been obliged to sign work agreements which RT International made known when it reported on pineapple cultivation in this green and democratic country.
  • According to UNDP data, a high percentage of the country’s pineapple plantation production is controlled by 40 large companies with enormous names such as Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte which are supposedly the easiest to control because of the power behind their name.
  • There are, however, the others, the small ones of which there are more than 1,400 and which are the most polluting and which fail to address denunciations. Those companies then sell to the large companies which in their turn can wash their hands of the responsibility, declaring that it is small ones that are guilty because they are the ones that don’t have the necessary technology to ensure that their agro-chemicals don’t contaminate the soil or that can’t pay appropriate wages, etc, etc.. And so, once again, they all wash their hands and turn their heads away.
  • This is ‘the price of the sweet fruits’, as the title of the German DW described it last year in its report on our country’s pineapple production. The report indicated that in Germany each fruit costs between 1 and 3 euros (between 700 and 2,000 colones) giving a total of 1 billion dollars that reach the state but not the wages of the workers, nor the cleanness of the rivers contaminated with bromacil. That is the issue that we must begin to see, without looking the other way, thereby genuinely calculating the true cost of the 2 million tonnes that we export every year.

ANEXCO harasses and fires union members

The following is a report reproduced here by kind permission of Banana Link.
ANEXCO harasses and fires union members – update on our Urgent Action
November 2015

baThank you for supporting our recent urgent action appeal in support of union members at Costa Rican pineapple producer ANEXCO. More than 23​,000 emails have been sent to the company, calling on them to end harrassment of union members and to engage in constructive dialogue with the union SINTRAPEM (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores/as del Sector Privado Empresarial). This massive effort, plus several articles in the trade press and an intervention by the UK’s Ethical Trade Initiative combined to convince Fyffes of the need to try and resolve the issues we raised.

Initially, three union members were sacked shortly after the urgent action appeal was launched. However, the pressure against union members inside the plantation ​i​s reported to have diminished since then and a meeting at the Costa Rican Labour Ministry on 20th October generated an agreement to explore the potential for the reinstatement of these three most sacked workers.

Subsequently, a meeting in San José on 30th October – involving SINTRAPEM, COSIBA (the Costa Rican banana and pineapple union coordinating body), COLSIBA (the Latin American banana and agro industrial union coordinating body), Banana Link, ANEXCO and Fyffes – did not achieve the real breakthrough that was needed to put an end to the anti-union activities. But ANEXCO and Fyffes did, however, agree to another meeting to review the list of the union’s complaints, provisionally scheduled for 6th November.

Although there is not yet a satisfactory conclusion to our urgent action appeal, the progress made so far would not have been possible without your support. We will keep you updated.​

www.bananalink.org.uk
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The growth of pineapples in Costa Rica

* In 2009, it was estimated that 50,000 hectares of land were sown with pineapples and that 26,000 jobs were directly involved in pineapple production. Source: Ana Cristina Camacho Sandoval (5 July 2009) ‘Insensatez piñera’, El Financiero, No.724, p.4, citing data source as the National Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters.

* In 2009, it was estimated that 50,000 hectares of land were sown with pineapples and that 26,000 jobs were directly involved in pineapple production.
Source:
Ana Cristina Camacho Sandoval (5 July 2009) ‘Insensatez piñera’, El Financiero, No.724, p.4, citing data source as the National Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters.

Freedom and fairness for Fyffes workers

screen-shot-2017-03-26-at-10-52-52The following article focuses on banana production with an examination of the practices of the major importing company Fyffes. I am grateful to Banana Link for permission to reproduce extracts from their article which appeared in the Make Fruit Fair! Newsletter of 23rd January 2017.

 Key words: Fyffes; labour rights; tropical fruit production; fair trade; supermarkets.

The Make Fruit Fair! Campaign is calling on Fyffes – the number one importer of bananas to Europe, and among the largest global marketer for Supersweet pineapples and winter season melons – to respect the rights of workers in its global supply chains. Read more about the campaign below.

Serious abuses of labour rights in Costa Rica and Honduras

screen-shot-2017-03-26-at-10-52-58“They never contributed to social insurance and now I will not be able to retire or finally rest after so many years spent on the plantations. I have to continue looking for work to survive.” – María Gómez (65) who worked for nearly 30 years as a supervisor at Melon Export SA.

Since the summer of 2015, the Make Fruit Fair! campaign has collected evidence of very serious violations of core labour standards at specific Fyffes’ subsidiaries: ANEXCO in Costa Rica and Suragroh and Melon Export SA in Honduras, where a largely female workforce, reliant on temporary seasonal work, is particularly vulnerable.

These violations include: failure to pay minimum wages and social insurance (an estimated £2.5m in pay and social insurance have been withheld); exposure of workers to hazardous agrochemicals; failure to respect freedom of association including threats, harassment and sacking of union members; and blocking collective bargaining processes.

In the case of Suragroh, Make Fruit Fair partners Banana Link and the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) have alleged breaches of the UK’s Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code for failure to respect unions and pay living wages, and Fyffes has refused to participate in local mediation to remedy these.

screen-shot-2017-03-26-at-10-53-04 “I got pregnant, and they do not allow pregnancy” – Marys Suyapa Gómez, sacked for being pregnant after working at Suragroh for 15 years

The Honduran Labour Inspectorate has also found non-payment of minimum wages and other statutory benefits. Additionally, a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Labour confirmed allegations that Suragroh failed to pay the minimum wage, among a lengthy list of other violations.

Workers are required to provide their own work equipment such as hoes, machetes and shoes, the costs of which can amount to an entire week’s income.

Workers are also exposed to hazardous chemicals, many reporting headaches, sickness and high temperatures as a result, and report a lack of information about and training to avoid and be protected from the dangers of chemical exposure. In December 2015, about 100 women suffered poisoning, 14 of whom were hospitalised, after they were accidentally dropped off downwind of herbicide and chlorine spraying in an adjoining plot.

You can read more about working conditions at Suragroh here:

Meanwhile, at ANEXCO, dialogue facilitated by the Costa Rican Ministry of Labour has failed to provide a space in which local unions can negotiate with ANEXCO management and Fyffes, and the local unions report continued failure to comply with core labour standards enshrined in Costa Rican legislation.

The rights abuses at ANEXCO are the subject of an ongoing Make Fruit Fair urgent action launched in September 2015. The key demands of respect for labour rights and an end to harassment and discrimination against union members have yet to be met.

Both cases clearly illustrate that Fyffes is also in breach of OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises for the failure to “Respect the right of their employees to be represented by trade unions”.

“Fyffes in Honduras does not respect the fundamental rights of women workers; the majority of employees are women who have up to 26 years of work without social security rights or social benefits. We demand respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining.” – Iris Munguía, Coordinator, COLSIBA (the Regional Coordination of Latin American Banana & Agro-Industrial Workers’ Unions)

Banana Link and many of our partners from Europe and Latin America wrote to Fyffes Chairman, David McCann, in November last year asking him to take action to address these issues, but received no response.

Despite Fyffes’ claim on its website that “if something isn’t working, we change the way we do it”, the company has failed to take responsibility in Costa Rica and Honduras.

No company, especially a company that professes to respect the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, should benefit from the appalling abuses suffered by those at the bottom of their supply chain.

An alliance of civil society organisations and trade unions, including unions in Costa Rica and Honduras, are calling on Fyffes to ensure that local plantation management

  • ends the discrimination of union members at Anexco (Costa Rica) and Suragroh (Honduras)
  • recognises unions at both Anexco (Costa Rica) and Suragroh (Honduras) and engages in collective bargaining with these unions to provide opportunity for workers to be represented in negotiations on pay and working conditions on plantations.

We are also calling for shareholders and directors with responsibility for Fyffes

  • to establish and implement a global company wide policy to ensure the respect of workers’ rights throughout its supply chains, including the right to join an independent trade union and for unions to engage in collective bargaining

screen-shot-2017-03-26-at-10-53-18“Fyffes must take responsibility for ensuring that their local managements in Costa Rica and Honduras recognise and enter into good faith negotiations with local unions and that company-wide freedom of association and collective bargaining is respected at every level.“ – Ron Oswald, General Secretary, International Union of Foodworkers.

Fyffes and Fairtrade

Fyffes are a significant trader of Fairtrade certified bananas in the UK. The Fairtrade mark is given to individual products not entire companies or their business practices. In the case of Fyffes only some of their produce is Fairtrade certified – the produce from the Fyffes subsidiaries in Costa Rica and Honduras is not covered by Fairtrade certification. Although Fairtrade Trader Standards do place ethical requirements on Fyffes, these requirements only cover farms that are part of certified supply chains, not those on non-certified farms.

Fyffes and UK supermarkets

We believe that supermarkets have a responsibility for ensuring ethical standards are respected throughout all of their supply chains. Most supermarkets in the UK buy some, or all, of their bananas through Fyffes. We, therefore, believe that these supermarkets have a responsibility for raising our concerns about labour rights with Fyffes. We have contacted all the UK supermarkets and the majority have responded and are in dialogue with Fyffes. But two supermarkets – Asda and Lidl – have not responded to our communications.

Relevant websites:

Banana Link – www.bananalink.org.uk

Make Fruit Fair! – www.makefruitfair.org

Ethical Trading Initiative – www.ethicaltrade.org

International Union of Food Workers (IUF) – www.iuf.org

Fair Trade Advocacy Office (FTAO) – www.fairtrade-advocacy.org

Gangster tactics against the unions in the pineapple industry

This figure is referred to in the book as Box 2.1 (Page 35)

Didier Leitón Valverde

Didier Leitón Valverde is a leader of the trade union SITRAP, the Costa Rican agricultural and plantation workers union. At 7:30 pm on 5 October 2005, after a meeting with workers on the Cahuita and Tortuguero plantations owned by the company Desarrollo Agroindustrial de Frutales S.A., he left for home on his motorbike. On the way he was attacked by unidentified assailants who had barred the road with a rope. He was insulted, beaten up, dragged across the ground and threatened with death. His identity papers, money and motorbike were stolen. The course of events suggests that the assailants had been informed of his movements and were not there by chance.

Didier Leitón Valverde knew that the road was not safe after dark and that taking it was risky. He would have preferred leaving earlier but the plantation owners had given him no choice but to hols the meeting late. He had agreed because he knew that the workers were victims of an aggressive anti-union campaign and it was important to him not to let them down.

Source: Peuples Solidaires (7 February 2006) ‘Costa Rica: Unionists Attacked’, France, www.peuples-solidaires.org/

Aquiles Rivera

Aquiles Rivera is a Costa Rican trade unionist member of the SITEPP union (Public and Private Enterprise Workers’ Union). He has exposed and fought against environmental problems caused by pineapple cultivation in the south of the country and labour problems experienced in the pineapple plantations. In May 2009 he was followed by four unidentified persons who stopped him in a dark area and warned him to stop what he was doing or he would be silenced. His 14 year old son was also threatened.

At the same time, the SITEPP office was also broken into and fifteen folders stolen, among them being documents about the use of chemicals in the area, windows were broken and other equipment damaged.

Pindeco denied any link with this event or any other persecution of SITEPP.


Aarón Sequeira (20 May 2009) ‘Amenazas de muerte y destrucción de oficina’, Prensa Libre.
Semanario Universidad (8 July 2009) ‘Comunidades pagan costosa factura’, Semanario Universidad, San José, Costa Rica.
Michelle Soto (14 June 2010) ‘Luchar Con la Vida’, Perfil, www.perfilcr.com/contenido/articles/3176/7/25-anos-de-lucha-ambiental/Page7 (accessed 10.01.11).