San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guatemalan banana bosses deny they’re exploiting campesinos

GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala is the world’s third-largest banana exporter, trailing only Costa Rica and Colombia, with sales increasing by 25 percent last year to $623.4 million. Productivity now stands at a record 4,000 boxes per hectare.

But critics say that unusually high productivity has come at the expense of Guatemala’s thousands of non-unionized banana workers – as Dole, Bonita and other multinational companies engage in a “race to the bottom” by paying salaries as low as $3 a day, with no benefits. That compares to $10 a day plus benefits equivalent to another $10 daily for their unionized counterparts throughout the region, according to the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP).

“Working conditions, wages and benefits on banana plantations in Ecuador and the Pacific coast of Guatemala are some of the worst in Latin America,” a USLEAP report charges. “It is nearly impossible for workers to organize unions to improve wages and conditions on the Pacific coast of Guatemala.”

The banana industry employs 25,000 workers and generates 7 percent of Guatemala’s foreign exchange and 16.4 percent of agricultural revenues. Last year, it ranked third in importance after sugar and corn, and surpassed both coffee and palm oil. The United States bought $596 million worth of Guatemalan bananas in 2013, or 95 percent of the total. In the U.S., Guatemalan bananas enjoy duty-free status.

Francis Bruderer, president of the Association of Independent Banana Producers (APIB in Spanish), said his industry has been unfairly maligned.

Francis Bruderer, president of Guatemala’s Association of Independent Banana Producers.

Larry Luxner/The Tico Times

Bruderer’s Swiss grandparents settled in Guatemala in the 1920s, and the Palo Blanco banana plantation has been in his family since 1958. Today, the organization he heads represents 82 banana exporters in the departments of Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, Suchitepéquez and Escuintla. Together, these packinghouses along the Pacific coast represent 85 percent of Guatemala’s banana production.

“People have a choice of working in bananas, sugar cane, rubber or palm oil, and they choose bananas because they can work 12 months a year,” Bruderer told The Tico Times during a wide-ranging interview in Guatemala City. “They can take home more money than they could in other countries.”

He said the average banana worker earns 100 quetzales – just under $13 – per day, not including benefits.

“Workers in the south coast of Guatemala want to develop their families, educate their kids and build houses, and the banana industry has to provide the opportunities to do that through their labor in the plantations,” Bruderer said. “The salaries we pay are way above the minimum wage, in some cases double the minimum wage.”

Bruderer acknowledged that the Guatemalan banana industry suffers from a poor image abroad, stained by the exploits of United Fruit back in the 1940s and ’50s. But he insisted that exploitation, poor working conditions and abuse are things of the past.

“We’re a young industry. We don’t even have one generation of south coast banana workers yet. So I think it’s unfair to talk about United Fruit and then extend that to Dole and Del Monte just because United Fruit screwed up,” he said. “We inherited all these problems from them.”

Further distancing today’s banana producers from those of the past, Bruderer said, “We’re not into politics. We don’t take presidents down. This is a democratic country. We’re focused on producing bananas cleanly, complying with all the environmental laws this country has, and developing their families. All bananas grown in the south coast are certified by Rainforest Alliance.”

Roughly 90 percent of the bananas produced along Guatemala’s south coast are sold to Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte and Fyffes, but those companies don’t set policy.

“We are the ones who call the shots in our farms,” he said.

Bananas left out of EU trade deal

Guatemalan banana production comes to around 90 million boxes a year, compared to 106 million boxes for Costa Rica. In 2013, banana exports brought Costa Rica roughly $823 million in foreign exchange, virtually unchanged from the $822.7 million reported in 2012. Under the quota system, Costa Rica can export 1.1 million tons to the European Union, while Guatemala’s EU quota is only 55,000 boxes.

Palo Blanco employs 2,400 workers and exports seven million boxes of bananas a year, mainly to the United States and Europe. Bruderer, 48, said his company has been certified by the Rainforest Alliance since 1998.

“I don’t think U.S. consumers are influenced by certification. Americans generally want the best quality at the lowest price,” he said. “I think the European market is a lot more sophisticated, but unluckily, when they negotiated the trade agreement with Europe, bananas were left out.”

Contrary to claims by labor leaders and grassroots organizations in the U.S. and Western Europe, Bruderer denied that his industry exploits its workers.

“There is no intimidation in the banana business. Why do you start a union? Because there’s injustice, because you’re exploiting people and not paying a decent salary,” he said. “But now we have a new breed of farmer – people like me who have had a chance to live outside Guatemala. My second home is the United States, and the Americans have in many ways shaped my life by being fair and good. I want to see fairness in my country too.”

Yet the recent murders of at least seven labor organizers loom over the Guatemalan banana industry like dark clouds.

In February 2012, Miguel Ángel González Ramírez – a member of the Izabal banana workers’ union – was shot to death while holding his son. Six other current or former members of that union, SITRABI, were killed in 2011. To date, no one has been arrested for any of these murders, sparking outrage from several overseas rights organizations.

Recommended: Guatemala: The worst place in the world to be a trade unionist

“Unfortunately, the Obama administration has made clear that while it is concerned about violence against trade unionists in Guatemala, it does not consider violence against trade unionists to be a violation of workers rights subject to the CAFTA labor complaint process,” USLEAP said. “Meanwhile, violence has skyrocketed against one of the main filers of the complaint, SITRABI – sending a clear message to trade unions in Guatemala that it could be dangerous to engage in the CAFTA process.”

But Bruderer said there’s no proof that banana industry bosses perpetrated the murders, or that the killings had anything to do with the victims’ political activism.

“Many of the labor leaders here participate in political movements and are exposed to daily and regular violent circumstances as we all are,” he said. “Our judicial system is not capable of following up these investigations to determine if the killings were related to labor issues, as they claim to be, or just regular violence.”

He added: “The country has been taken over by the drug dealers and we don’t have the resources to do the job like it has to be done. I, as president of the Banana Exporters Association, would like to go all the way to the end to find out who was responsible for the killing of these seven men.”

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If this guy really thinks that these 7 murders were random violence, he is extremely dull. These are organized. When the workers try to organize, the bosses organize as well. When the bosses organize, there is a lot more money involved, and getting people hired to kill important labor organizers is pocket change for these fat cats. The industry has not changed, only the image of the industry has changed, but I’m not convinced that the shiny veneer that they are casting over themselves is the truth. There is blood on somebody’s hands, and my guess is that those hands belong to someone who stands to benefit from the continued state of unions in the industry, which is pretty much nonexistent. Justice has lost its meaning in this corporacentric world.

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Your right rich will never allow poor to have anything.

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The United Fruit Company controlled everything for years. They had help from CIA and Ex CIA named Foster Dullas and his brother. Dole and other companies give large amounts of money to both US political parties to keep thing as the are in Latin America. Still Banana´s and Pine Apples are being used as control over the poor by never paying a fair wage to the workers. If you speak out against Dole or anybody who control these farms that have Pine apples or Banana´s you are fired and black listed. Really there are 8 families that control most of Central America produce. One of the family is in Costa Rica can you guess the name? They have congress conection now and very good friend with PLN admin. I hope the Tico Times would start touching who has the power in the Farmers field.

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bogey boy

The tactics used by the corps such as Dole, et al, have not changed since 1940. they continue to exploit the third world countries, and will continue to do so until they are forced to unionize. However, with uncle sam as the guarantor for the multinational corps in this region, the pleas and the cries of those who are being exploited will never be heard. the workers are not allowed to protest or they will be fired, perhaps worse things can occur. The US is a primary player in this negligence of the indigenous peoples of Central America, and continue their foreign policy of supporting governments that rein in the efforts of any group seeking to create a state in which the needs of their citizens become their top priority – however, that’s bad for business and bad for profits, ergo, the USA supports worker exploitation citing stability as their justification. The same set of rules are now being applied to the citizens of the USA, who now are owned lock stock and barrel by the Corps. The multinational elites are firmly united against
indigenous peoples and firmly united in their profit seeking motives. These countries, USA included are so guilty and yet maintain their innocence on the world’s stage.

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