Rainforest Alliance suspends Costa Rican banana and pineapple producer

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Rainforest Alliance recently suspended the certification of Grupo Acon, a banana and pineapple producer in Costa Rica. The reasons for the suspension relate to discrimination against workers who join a trade union, and having no complaint or grievance mechanisms to protect workers’ rights in place. 

In welcoming this action by Rainforest Alliance, and the prospect of a change of practice by Grupo Acon to reach the standards required by the certifier, we reproduce the statement below from our Costa Rican trade union partner, Sindicato de Trabajadores de Plantaciones Agricolas (SITRAP), which represents tropical fruit workers in Costa Rica - the biggest supplier of pineapples and third largest of bananas to the UK market. 

Siquirres, 22nd May 2017

Dear colleagues of solidary organisations, GMB, UNISON, Banana Link, BanaFair, and COLSIBA, as Mr Oliver Bach from the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) was informed a few days ago, we have been made aware of the temporary suspension of Grupo Acon from the Rainforest Alliance certification. 
 
With regards to this important news we wish to say the following. 
 
For several years SITRAP has alerted the Grupo Acon company, the Rainforest Certification managers in Costa Rica and the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), that on the Grupo Acon plantations there has been discrimination against workers affiliated to the trade union. Furthermore, there was not a positive and consistent attitude from Grupo Acon’s administration to address the workers’ problems that SITRAP presented, with regard to abuse from supervisors and administrators, salary reductions, occupational health and work-related risks, workplace harassment, unfair dismissals and overloading of tasks. But the company has always turned a blind eye to this situation, even brothers Jorge and Roberto Acon Sánchez do not pay attention to SITRAP’s proposals. Middle management did not take action and every day the discrimination against the trade union and its members increased. 
 
In specific terms, this abuse of rights goes against Principle 5 of Rainforest Alliance’s Certification Standards which talks of “Fair treatment and good working conditions for workers”. The criteria for this Principle 5 make reference to two important aspects: Criterion 5.2 says that workers must not be discriminated against for belonging to a trade union organisation and point 5.20 that says that “Complaint or grievance mechanisms to protect workers’ rights are implemented.”
 
After conversations between representatives of organisations from the Urgent Action Working Group, which analyses SAN’s problems, comrade Alistair Smith informed me that in a conversation at the end of last year with Mr André De Freitas, Director of SAN, Mr De Freitas indicated that he wished to talk with trade unions in Costa Rica about the problems with trade union organisations in certified plantations. A first meeting was organised for 5th October 2016 between Oliver Bach, Director of Standard Policy for Sustainable Agriculture and André de Freitas, Executive Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Network. A series of conversations took place about the idea of encouraging negotiating tables between companies and trade unions, facilitated by SAN. This would serve as an ideal space to hold discussions about the problems reported by the trade unions, both at company level and at the level of certification and its methods, and this project is underway. 
 
Meanwhile, based on our complaints against the Grupo Acon plantations, an investigation supported by SAN was started by the manager of Agricultural Certification at Rainforest Alliance, Ana Lucía Corrales, and the Rainforest Alliance auditing group, into the complaints made by SITRAP. In this investigation, members of SITRAP’s Board of Directors, grassroots leaders and affiliates, were taken into account for the first time. They gave written information and testimonials on the violations of rights against the certification regulations used by the Rainforest Alliance. 
 
This resulted in the cancellation of Grupo Acon’s certification due to the failure to fulfil the critical criterion 5.2 about discrimination and 5.20 about complaints procedures for workers. 
 

Photo: SITRAP representatives meeting workers on a recent visit to a Grupo Acon plantation (SITRAP)
 
For SITRAP this is a great triumph, and it is a clear example that companies continue to violate human rights in plantations, and that what we have reported all these years has been correct. However, if trade union organisations are not taken into account in these auditing processes, it is very difficult to demonstrate these violations, since companies arrange audits according to their convenience. We hope that in future trade union organisations will continue to be included in these procedures; if not, they are not at all legitimate. 
 
We are hoping for a change of attitude from Grupo Acon, as we at SITRAP are still willing to establish a social dialogue with this company. However, this company seemingly has no interest in changing, since a few days after the suspension of its certification, the administrators met in the plantations to rebuke and threaten the workers. They used the same arguments as always; telling workers that due to the trade union, the plantations will be closed (as it happened in the south of the country during the 80s), that those who are affiliated to the trade union are on a black list, that due to the trade union the company will not be able to sell bananas. This has created a hostile situation on the plantations against trade union members. We can use the case of the Plantation Bioban 01 in Matina as an example. On 17th May 2017 the manager, Marvin Coneja, held a meeting with staff and on the same day a delegation of the Board of Directors from STIRAP visited the plantation to talk with workers and share trade union information. Mr Marvin, with his whole administration and Mr. Rovin from Human Resources, demanded that we left the work centre, and wanted to remove us from the premises by force. 
 
We wish to thank solidary organisations, such as the GMB, UNISON, Banana Link, Banafair and COLSIBA. Many thanks to all of these organisations for their support, since without the support and your constant actions, it would not be possible to achieve results like the one we have just obtained.
 
We also thank the courageous workers that resist the attacks, discrimination, persecution and isolation imposed by employers, and that in spite of this they still report it to the organisations.
 
Thank you comrades
A heartfelt embrace to you all
 
With God’s help we will continue our fight for trade union freedom and human dignity in Costa Rica’s banana and pineapple plantations.
 
Yours sincerely, 
 
 
Didier Alexander Leitón Valverde
SITRAP General Secretary