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Guatemalan banana bosses deny they’re exploiting campesinosGuatemala 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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Publication date: 4/25/2014
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