You may well be familiar with the history of the banana companies in Latin America, with their rank exploitation of workers, imperialist treatment of nations, and ability to get the U.S. military to intervene on their behalf. But that story usually ends in our remembered historical narrative with the Guatemalan coup in 1953. Our stories about U.S. imperialism in Latin America after 1959 revolve much more around Cuba, guerrilla movements, and Reagan’s intervention in Central America. But the banana companies have never went away and they are still exploiting workers as much as ever. Diego Arguedas Ortiz reports on a banana strike in Costa Rica:
A strike that has brought activity to a halt since January on three major banana plantations on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, along the border with Panama, has highlighted the abuses in a sector in the hands of transnational corporations and has forced the governments of both countries to intervene.
More than 300 labourers, almost all of them indigenous Panamanians working on plantations for a branch of the U.S. corporation Fresh Del Monte, have been on strike since Jan. 16 to protest harassment of trade unionists, changes in schedules and working conditions, delayed payment of wages and dismissals considered illegal.
“The company laid us off on Dec. 31 and when it rehired us on Jan. 3 it said we were new workers and that any modification of the work applied to us. But according to legal precedent, to be considered a new worker at least a month has to go by,” Federico Abrego, one of the striking workers from Panama, told Tierramérica by phone from the area.
Abrego and most of the more than 300 workers on strike on the Sixaola plantations 1, 2 and 3 belong to the Ngöbe and Bugle indigenous groups, who live in a self-governed indigenous county in Panama across the border from Costa Rica, where many go to find work.
The plantations in Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastal region are the scenario of frequent conflicts between workers and the big banana companies, and the current strike on the Sixaola plantations is just one example. In 2013, Sitepp held a strike to protest poor working conditions and the complaints are piling up in the Ministry of Labour.
In May 2014, an inspection by the ministry revealed a number of violations of the country’s labour laws and ordered the companies to redress them.
For example, according to the report by the national inspection office, “on occasion, company officials use different forms of intimidation against the workers, either through verbal abuse or shouting or practices of labour harassment.”
“After these denunciations were made, they set up a union, tailored to the needs of the company,” the president of Sitepp, Luis Serrano, told Tierramérica. “Through that union they were trying to take over the negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement that expired in December. They launched a campaign against us and started to give benefits to the union in alliance with the company, which they created.”
The union leaders complain that despite the binational agreement, they have not yet received food support from the institutions, although the 64 workers covered by the accord were rehired.
A large proportion of the banana industry is in the hands of transnational corporations. Besides Fresh Del Monte, there are branches of other U.S. firms like Chiquita Brands, which controls 24 percent of the country’s banana exports, or the Dole Food Company.
As I continue to say, these workers should have access to U.S. courts to demand redress from these companies. Unless companies can be held responsible in both the nation of corporate origin and the nation of production, the grotesque exploitation of the world’s poor will continue.
By the way, I took that picture of the old United Fruit building in New Orleans. I was very excited.