JFC: new union-buster on the block: how solidarismo operates

The following extracts are taken from an article in the Banana Trade News Bulletin, No. 44 (May 2010) produced by Banana Link. I am grateful to Banana Link for permission to reproduce this article.

The Joint Fruit Company (JFC) is Russian-owned and aims to increase international fruit sales in Russian retail chains. JFC first invested in Costa Rica in 2007 and bought over 900 hectares, mostly planted in bananas. It also buys its products from independent producers. It is reported to have continued buying land in 2009/10.

One of the farms it bought was Campo 5 in Cariari, now renamed Finca Bonanza. During 2009, a group of workers had complained to the company and labour inspectors about non-payment of the minimum wage, increased working hours, exaggerated workloads and exposure to chemical spraying, but their complaints had not been addressed. In mid-February they therefore contracted the local SITRAP trade union official to request support in getting the issues taken seriously by the company. A group of 13 workers joined SITRAP and Bonanza was duly informed so that the appropriate deductions could be made from the payroll.

Even before receiving the list of new members, management had circulated a letter for workers to sign requesting the intervention of the John XXIII Social School, the Catholic church body that has led the union-busting campaign for the last three decades in Costa Rica. Within 24 hours the School’s promoters had been contracted in to prevent the union from gaining ground amongst the workforce. The promoters organised elections for a permanent workers’ committee and even though they had lined up their candidates, two of the three workers elected were amongst those who had joined SITRAP.

The committee members were then taken off the plantation for the day with the intention of them signing up to a so-called ‘direct settlement’ (‘arreglo directo’) that had been drafted by the School promoters. Even though the two union members pointed out that they had played no part in drafting a document that was about their pay and conditions, they were pressured into signing the ‘settlement’ on behalf of the whole workforce. The company then created a solidarista association as part of its strategy to discourage union membership. But direct pressure was also applied: one of the two members of the committee was visited almost daily by the School promoter, who went as far as threatening him with sending a hired killer if he didn’t give up his union membership.

Just as happens on virtually every other plantation in Costa Rica where workers choose freely to join a trade union …, a range of tactics deployed by the School and some company representatives have been put into operation. These include threats of being black-listed so that no other plantation will employ you or your family members, threats that the plantation will be forced to close down and offers to accompany workers to the SITRAP offices with their papers signing away union membership at the company’s expense.

On Saturday 1st May, the local SITRAP official was escorted from the plantation by police, following a phone call alleging that the company’s property was about to be damaged. The plantation manager had previously – and very aggressively – tried to evict the same official on the grounds that he was on private property. On 4th May, the company sent the police again during a meeting between the union official and members.

Such activities are in clear violation of international and national labour legislation. With very few exceptions, however, banana companies are all sooner or later drawn into what has become standard union-busting practice. Meanwhile, the industry and government authorities continue to make out that Costa Rica is a socially advanced nation where freedom of association is respected.

Bonanza Servicios, the Costa Rican subsidiary of JFC, has now become embroiled in these violations, aggravated by threats of violence and even killing ordinary workers who find that their grievances are not addressed. It can only be hoped that the company realises that this kind of refusal to engage in any kind of dialogue, let alone free collective bargaining, with their workforce can only harm their operations in the long term.

When Vladimir Putin announced in March … that cheap bananas for Russian consumers were part of a strategy of “keeping down food prices including tropical fruit”, he was not necessarily aware that cheap fruit is often produced at the expense of the workers and the small producers. It is to be hoped that JFC will see that paying a fair price and treating workers fairly is an integral part of being a socially responsible multinational enterprise in the 21st century.

URALSIB Fixed Income Research bulletin, Moscow 2006;
Various editions of El Expreso, Guayaquil, Ecuador, Dec 09 – Feb 10;
El Ciudadano, Quito, 05/02/10;
La Nación, San José, 16/06/09;
johnhelmer.net, Moscow, 25/03/10;
SITRAP reports, Siquirres, April and May 2010.
Banana Link website: www.bananalink.org.uk