Chiquita, formerly known as the United Fruit Company, was until the 1990s the biggest banana company in the world, controlling about one third of world trade. Despite coming close to bankruptcy in 2000, the company stills holds second place in world sales figures, second only to Dole. In Latin America, Chiquita operates banana plantations or buys year-round in Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua and Mexico.
International framework agreement signed
Prior to 2000, Chiquita had a notoriously bad reputation on labour relations in Latin American countries. However, following an international campaign putting the spotlight on its social and environmental record in 1998 and 1999, the company made a welcome change in its attitude towards trade unions and non-government organisations.
In 2000, Chiquita agreed to negotiate an International Workers' Rights Agreement with the Coordination of Latin American Banana Workers' Unions (COLSIBA) and in 2001 an international framework agreement on minimum labour standards and trade union rights was signed by COLSIBA, the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers (IUF) and Chiquita Brands International. The agreement was significant in that it also applied to Chiquita's suppliers, and has since empowered unions in countries such as Colombia and Honduras to organise previously non-unionised workers. In Costa Rica, where trade union persecution remains prevalent on the company's plantations, a special 'Conciliation Procedure' was negotiated, although the anti-union culture of local management has proved difficult to change.
Following a campaign in the early 1990s, Chiquita developed a partnership with US-based NGO Rainforest Alliance. By 2001, the company secured certification of all its Latin American plantations under the Rainforest Alliance’s ‘Better Banana Project' and was encouraging supplier plantations to become certified. The company also produced a Code of Conduct that includes the Social Accountability Initiative’s SA 8000 standard. In 2002, Chiquita joined the United Kingdom's Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).
The company's behaviour since the mid-2000s has however raised fears that the company may be reverting to its old style of operation. In 2007 and again in 2010, COLSIBA expressed serious concerns over a general failure by the company to address workers concerns at plantations in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Wherever collective bargaining agreements existed, the local management seemed to drag its heels or seek reductions in benefits to workers. The Framework Agreement with IUF and COLSIBA remains intact and some issues have been successfully resolved, but trade unions are concerned that the spirit of openness shown in the first half of the decade has not survived changes in senior management.
Chiquita’s former operations in Colombia (they sold their interests to Banacol in 2003) were the subject of a landmark lawsuit in the US, which resulted in the company being fined $25 million as part of a settlement for having made payments to Colombian paramilitary groups, including the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in exchange for local employee protection. In June 2016, under the Torture Victim Protection Act, a US judge allowed victims of Colombian paramilitary killings to continue with their lawsuit against former Chiquita executives, and in November 2016 a class action lawsuit was brought against the company. In March 2017, a class action complaint was filed in Florida against Chiquita executives accusing them of making payments to the AUC and allowing the AUC to use Chiquita's ports for illicit trading. These lawsuits are ongoing.
Despite these unresolved concerns, Chiquita remains - as of 2011 - the only transnational banana company to have a signed a regional framework agreement with banana workers' unions. The company also participates actively in the World Banana Forum, launched in 2009.
Corporate Social Responsibility in Latin America: Chiquita, Women Banana Workers and Structural Inequalities by Marina Prieto-Carron, University of Bristol, UK 2006
Analysis: Chiquita's path from pariah to paradigm, by Dr Jem Bendell, March 2003 (available by subscription only)
How to Become A Top Banana from Time magazine, Feb 7 2000: Looking at Chiquita and the EU/US Trade War (full article available by subscription only-abstract online)
US/LEAP (US Labor Education in the Americas Project)
Photos: COLSIBA conference hosted by SITRAIBANA, Panama, August 2007
Weighing bananas (Banana Link), 2011