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IUF and COLSIBA meet Chiquita on May 10/11 to review regional agreement and ongoing issues

Posted to the IUF website 26-Jun-2006

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Five years after the signing of the breakthrough agreement between the IUF/COLSIBA and Chiquita Brands senior representatives of the IUF, COLSIBA and Chiquita meet in Cincinnati on May 10 and 11 to review the overall impact of the agreement. The IUF and COLSIBA had also tabled a number of ongoing issues which remain unresolved between the company and the IUF/COLSIBA.

COLSIBA and the IUF stressed some positive successes achieved in the time the agreement has been in force and directly arising from it. They also stressed the importance of the open recognition of both the IUF and COLSIBA by senior Chiquita corporate management and as a result by management throughout Chiquita operations.

The "across the table" discussions have given both the IUF and COLSIBA a concrete opportunity to resolve what have often been difficult situations and as such the entire process was welcomed by both the COLSIBA Co-ordinator, German Zepeda and the IUF's general secretary, Ron Oswald. "Whilst Chiquita will still make decisions that we and our members will have problems with and will rightly oppose, we and COLSIBA have been able to successfully resolve a number of issues arising from these decisions in favour of our members," commented Oswald. "We have also seen our members use the agreement to increase union membership in the company and in its suppliers in a number of cases".

Perhaps the most significant membership success was the organizing of close to 5,000 new union members in Colombia following the signing of the agreement and a number of collective bargaining agreements in place there as a result. New union membership also resulted subsequent to the agreement in Honduras where a union was built and consolidated in a number of farms.

Both these positive examples of organizing have however been threatened by events since.

In Colombia the decision by Chiquita to sell their Colombian division would in a time before the IUF/COLSIBA/Chiquita agreement have likely seen the destruction of the union by local producers who would have acquired the operations sold off by Chiquita. However in 2004 the IUF, COLSIBA and the Colombian union SINTRAINAGRO negotiated a ground-breaking agreement which had Chiquita guaranteeing that the new owners would recognize the union, would respect the single collective agreement that existed and would do nothing to attack union membership in those operations. To date that agreement has held and, despite the shock of the sale of Chiquita's operations in Colombia (its largest single national unionized workforce at the time) union membership and collective agreements remain in place throughout that former Chiquita operation.

In Honduras serious flooding in 2005 led to the abandoning by Chiquita of the farms where previously new union organization had taken place. After a difficult period of negotiations complemented by negotiations directly within the framework of the IUF/COLSIBA/Chiquita agreement an initial agreement has been reached that new owners rehabilitating the flooded plantations would need to agree to a union rights clause in any contract Chiquita might sign to purchase bananas from those farms in the future. Whilst not a cast-iron guarantee this agreement shows again the value to our members of the kind of negotiations possible with the company as a result of the recognition gained from the company for both the IUF and COLSIBA.
In Guatemala there has again been progress in settling significant conflicts through agreement evolving out of the process of engagement across the table guaranteed by the IUF/COLSIBA/Chiquita agreement.

Even in Costa Rica where issues of low union membership plague the banana sector and many other sectors in a country where union rights are systematically squeezed by the dominant "Solidarismo" system (a type of "yellow unionism") the company has engaged in ongoing meetings with unions representing a very small proportion of Chiquita workers and workers in their suppliers. The dialogue has replaced open confrontation and repression and the company has in principle agreed to remain neutral and provide access to workers for a pilot union organizing effort in a number of Chiquita plantations.

"These examples together make up a significant success story," noted Oswald. "We have not got all we wanted, we have faced a company that will inevitably continue to take tough decisions and squeeze our members in the name of productivity and lowering costs. However we have shown through this process that we can defend our members interests effectively and concretely across this international bargaining table. And in doing that we can see them gain their share of the benefits which otherwise would often accrue exclusively to the company and its shareholders. It has been and continues to be hard work and we will no doubt face many more challenges. However both COLSIBA and the IUF expressed the strong view when we met outside of our meeting with Chiquita that this investment had brought concrete and real benefits to banana workers in Chiquita and in their suppliers."

In the preparatory IUF/COLSIBA meeting and in their evaluation of the two-day meeting with the company Oswald and Zepeda both stressed the difference the IUF and COLSIBA experience in the social behaviour of Chiquita and other banana companies.

The meeting ended with a number of concrete agreements. These included support from COLSIBA, the IUF and Chiquita corporate management for the constructive negotiations that had started following the Honduran floods and the damage to several plantations, an in principle agreement for a pilot union organizing project in Costa Rica and continued support from the highest level of Chiquita management for ongoing local negotiations in Guatemala.

The meeting further agreed that a next full Review Committee would be held relatively early and would include proposals for re-negotiating and strengthening the content of the regional agreement.

Following this most recent meeting with Chiquita Oswald added, "There is a massive contrast between these type of sometimes tough but real negotiations with unions at every level across the table within Chiquita and the empty rhetoric of the other major international banana companies. We will never be impressed by corporate reputations protected exclusively by fig leaves built of CSR initiatives. Those initiatives, whether valuable in themselves or not, are no substitute for full engagement with the unions that actually represent banana workers. Unions that would represent a lot more but for the ongoing repression of workers' rights throughout much of the banana growing activities of those companies in Central America and beyond."