Changuinola, Panama : progress for the unions and workers’ cooperative

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This historic banana exporting region lies at the heart of the continent. For the best part of a century, the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) monopolised production on Panama’s Atlantic (Caribbean) coast and any benefits for workers were only gained through hard struggles to form independent trade unions. Today, Chiquita is still there, under new ownership, but does not call the shots in the way it used to be able to do in the day’s when Panama was one of the classic ‘banana republics’.

Putting health at the heart of the agenda

SITRAIBANA, formerly the Chiriqui Land Company Workers’ Union SITRACHILCO, today includes in its membership the vast majority of over 5,000 workers employed by Chiquita. The union continues to bargain collectively with the company on a regular basis (every two or three years) and the lowest paid workers earn above the national minimum wage of $14.80 for a standard eight-hour day. However, during a workshop with local union representatives from across the Chiquita plantations on occupational health and safety issues, it was clear that workers face a range of serious health issues that arise in all workforces in industrial export production of bananas.
In a recent strike action in mid-June, the union secured a renewed promise from President Varela to lower the retirement age for banana workers from 62 years to 58 for men, and from 57 years to 54 for women, based on the difficult working conditions that can cause workers’ health to deteriorate rapidly. Francisco Smith, SITRAIBANA general secretary, told the media that the strike was called to pressure President Juan Carlos Varela to keep the promise me had made at the end of May to sanction and promulgate draft Bill no.145. The union felt the President was dragging his feet, but lifted the strike after four days when the President reiterated his promise.
The other independent workers’ union, Sindicato Industrial de Trabajadores de Productores Bananeros Independientes (SITRAPBI), has over a thousand members in the eight plantations which are not part of the Bocas Fruit Company division of Chiquita. These plantations were all independently owned until another Chiquita subsidiary called Hilara Holdings bought up troubled national producers’ farms (1) that had previously sold them fruit. Today, just three are independent of Chiquita, and belong to a cooperative of former Chiquita workers, Cooperativa Bananera del Atlantico (Coobana).


Coobana : a success story that retailers need to support

Since the workers’ cooperative entered Fairtrade in 2010, the 570 directly employed workers have made considerable social and economic progress for the 20 communities where their workforce lives. They now sell all their 18 to 20,000 boxes per week to Fairtrade markets in the UK, Switzerland, Benelux, Italy and New Zealand. The substantial Fairtrade premium income is funding a major housing programme, regular bonus payments, as well as scholarships for secondary and university education and environmental improvements. The cooperative has also been able to negotiate regular collective agreements with the SITRAPBI union.                            

SITRAPBI leadership with COLSIBA representative
Although Coobana has also worked hard on raising productivity from 1700 boxes per hectare per year to 2300, even with a fairer price, things remain very financially tight. The fact that there have been no increases in the Fairtrade minimum price (and customers do not pay more than the minimum), rising costs, especially for material that needs to be imported like the cardboard boxes, mean that it will be hard to conclude a better pay deal with the union in the forthcoming negotiations. It is to be hoped that retailers can be made to understand that a fair price is not something static, even when the producer makes substantial progress on productivity. Real costs continue to rise for the cooperative as a producer as well as for the member workers and their salaried staff. The onus should not be constantly on producers to improve performance when a slightly higher price could contribute directly to a decent standard of living at the beginning of the chain.                                   
The problem of unsustainably low retail prices in Coobana’s largest market in the UK, means that retailers who are fighting the price wars with each other are tempted to keep up downward pressure on the price they pay, even when they are committed to being 100% Fairtrade. Fair trade brings additional responsibilities and the opportunity to tell consumers a different story about an economic exchange that is genuinely fair for all involved, starting with those who do the hardest work at the beginning of the chain.
(1) According to the ITUC Annual Survey of Trade Union Rights, in 2012, in violation of a collective agreement, the Grupo San Bosco closed down two large plantations, falsely claiming bankruptcy, leaving more than 70 members of SITRAPBI out of work