Labourers in deprived region complain of poor conditions and say multinational has blocked efforts to form a trade union, allegations denied by Fyffes
Article reproduced from The Guardian
Photo: Melon plantation workers with their union flag in Choluteca. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian
Thousands of miles from the supermarkets in the west that they supply with cantaloupes, a community of Honduran melon plantation labourers say they are threatened with dismissal and destitution because they have tried to form a union at their Irish-owned company.
The workers – the vast majority of whom are women – are now appealing to US and European consumers to boycott products sold by the fruit multinational Fyffes until it improves working conditions and allows collective bargaining.
Their home is Choluteca, a municipality close to the border with Nicaragua that is one of the country’s poorest regions. For decades, it has also been an area where plantation owners have been able to hire, fire and violate labour regulations with impunity, thanks to support from local politicians and the absence of unions.
The level of economic development is apparent on a visit to the fields. We drive along a rutted dirt road in a car so rusted that the ground can be seen through holes in the floor. Most of the crops by the roadside are sugarcane until we reach Finca Santa Rosa, where the pale brown earth is striped with dozens of 100m-long plastic sheets that cover the muskmelons.
This is the property of one of three Fyffes subsidiaries – Melon Export, Soled and Suragro – in Choluteca. Together, they employ about 2,700 local people to clear the soil, plant seeds, spray herbicides and pesticides, turn over the melons to prevent sun scorching, and then harvest them.
Workers say they are usually paid less than the minimum wage of about $10 (£8) a day for long shifts under a burning sun. Choluteca is notorious as the hottest region of Honduras. But, they complain, the company provides no water, no toilets and no medical provision if they feel unwell.
“We have to work even if we are sick,” says 65-year-old Maria Gómez, who has been with Melon Export for 28 years. “The conditions haven’t improved since I started.”
Fyffes says that the Choluteca operation is certified by Primus Labs, a food safety consultancy. “They check on the provision of toilets and water, etc. Medical provision is provided by an on-site medical team and if the problem is bad the worker is treated in a private clinic, such as the union member who is currently on long-term sick leave due to his diabetes and also the workers that were accidentally exposed to ground treatment chemicals.”
The work is seasonal, lasting only four to six months. Gómez’s situation is typical of many workers in developing countries trapped in poverty – with no pension or benefits on offer, the 65-year-old has no chance of retiring soon. She leaves home at 5am and returns at 6pm, and she has to bring her own equipment. “The company gives us nothing. If we don’t bring our own, they won’t let us work,” she says.
The costs are significant for these workers: a hoe (about 100 lempiras, or $4), machete (30), sombrero (100), shoes (300), backpack (300), long-sleeved shirt (100) and towels (50) to ensure the neck is not exposed to the sun. That can amount to an entire week’s income. One union member shows her payslip for the previous week – 882 lempiras for a seven-day period. Others say they get about 4,400 lempiras each month, 30% less than the minimum wage.
Concerns about health come from the workers’ use of agrochemicals, including Gramoxone, which was banned by the EU in 2007 but is unrestricted in Honduras. Workers say they are given no protective clothing to wear when using the chemical, which has well-documented health risks. “They don’t even give us face masks,” Gomez claims.
In response to this allegation, the company told the Guardian that all necessary safety equipment is provided. “Primus Labs check that PPE, Personal Protective Equipment, is provided to workers. The problem with PPE is that workers are trained to use it but in the tropics it becomes uncomfortable and so the worker frequently does not wear it.”
Nevertheless, there are accidents. Seventeen female workers were hospitalised last December, after being poisoned by agrochemicals, according to the UK trade union GMB. Fyffes said this was not because the workers were handling pesticides or chemicals, but because they were accidentally dropped off downwind of a treatment programme. The company said it had paid for treatment at a local clinic and had since reviewed procedures to prevent a repeat of the accident.
Workers have been trying to get more say in the way they are treated. To improve conditions, two years ago employees set up a branch of the agriculture workers’ union Stas. They say they faced opposition from the company and threats from the government, but despite this the union now has 107 members.
Among the first to join was Baltazar Cruz, who said he turned down a company incentive of 10,000 lempiras to quit the union’s board of directors. He is glad he persisted. Soon after joining, he lost several toes in a work-related accident. When he asked the company for support, they initially did nothing, he said, but the union helped him to secure medical treatment and a stipend.
“The union was very important for me. It’s difficult now, but without them, it would be worse,” he says.
Six workers say their employers were putting pressure on them not to join.
“They threaten not to hire union workers. It’s very cruel and oppressive,” says the general secretary, Moisés Sanchez Gómez. He says he was sacked this year because of his union role. “People here have given their life to the company and they get nothing back. I’ve worked for them for 20 years and all I have is the shirt on my back.”
A melon plantation in Honduras. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian
Fyffes says it is happy to engage with a union, as it does in other countries, but acknowledges difficulties in Honduras, saying that the union in Choluteca has not been properly constituted or confirmed by the ministry of labour. But the company denies it has fired union members.
“All seasonal workers are let go at the end of the season as is typical in seasonal agricultural businesses all over the world. These people will include union and non-union workers, men and women. It is not the case that the workers are sacked – they are on temporary contracts that expire. No permanent worker who is a union member has been sacked,” said a company spokesman.
Fyffes insists it provides all necessary safety equipment and refutes claims that it fails to pay workers the minimum wage, noting that an inspection of the 2013-15 payrolls by the Honduran labour ministry found all wages and supplements were in line with national laws. Workers argue that the authorities are anxious to please the company, and that officials who take their side are punished.
The agriculture minister has voiced concern that Fyffes may leave Honduras if the workers persist with the union; press reports have also suggested that financial reasons might drive the company to neighbouring Guatemala.
Fyffes insists that it has no plans to leave the region, but the government’s concerns have left locals in a state of uncertainty. About 90% of the workers are women, many are single mothers, and others are elderly. If work for Fyffes dried up, Gómez estimates that 700 locals could become destitute. “The people here would be left with nothing,” he says.
It would take very little to push people here into abject poverty. One worker, Juan Antonio Ramirez, says he needs to pay his property tax or the interest on the penalty payment would increase and he would be pushed further into debt. Gómez says she would be unable to buy food – the job is essential because blight has ruined her small crop of corn.
She supports a boycott of Fyffes unless it stays and accepts the union. “I don’t think consumers realise what is going on here. I wish they could come and see our situation for themselves. People should not buy these products,” she says.
The workers are also fighting on other fronts. Union members have filed lawsuits to seek compensation for what they say is underpayment of their wages. But the odds are against them. Despite Fyffes’ assurances that it is not leaving the region, the town mayor has provoked further anxiety among the workers by saying that union organisers will be to blame if the company does leave. Patricia Riera, the union’s go-between with the national Festagro confederation, says the presidential delegate to the region has warned her that she should “stop messing around”.
This is a dangerous place to upset powerful people. Honduras is among the top three most murderous nations in the world. Human rights activists, environmentalists, journalists and union organisers are frequently targets for speaking out. Some cases cause an international uproar, such as the killing this year of Goldman Prize-winning anti-dam campaigner Berta Cáceres. Many others killings go largely unreported. Last year, a university activist, Hector Martinez Motiño, was gunned down in Choluteca.
Union members show a threatening note they say was put in their post box last month. “Desist from putting together unions or face the consequences … I warn you,” the note reads.
While there is no suggestion that Fyffes is behind any threats, the climate of fear in Honduras, and the well-documented dangers for activists of all kinds of speaking out, mean that Riera says she feels under great pressure and fears for her personal safety. She has asked for help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, but turned down a government offer to provide her with a soldier as a guard, because she does not trust the army. When the Guardian visited the melon fields, she waited elsewhere in case she was seen by company guards.
With tension mounting, she has decided to move to another city for three months. It is the first time she has felt forced from her home. “I have to leave because of the situation,” she says. “It’s getting too dangerous so I need to keep a low profile for a while.”
On its website, Fyffes – which is also the world’s biggest banana producer – claims “good community relations are part of the work ethic”. It has previously come under a critical spotlight for labour violations on its pineapple farms in Costa Rica. But the company said it has a policy “to dialogue and engage with any properly constituted union and is working happily with union members in many parts of our business”.
Bert Schouwenburg, GMB international officer, said the concerns raised by the government that Fyffes will leave Honduras have created one of the worst situations he has seen in his many years in Latin America. “In an area of high unemployment where entire communities are blacklisted, this is tantamount to threatening them and their families with starvation,” he said. “Fyffes is an appalling employer that cares nothing for its workers who toil in boiling heat to produce the fruit that makes the company’s profits. They have no respect for domestic or international law governing workers’ rights and must be brought to book.”
GMB has called on the UK government-funded Ethical Trading Initiative (which is supposed to guarantee collective bargaining rights) to eject Fyffes, but so far the demand has fallen on deaf ears.
The Choluteca workers have also had support from the Danish union 3F and other international groups. In the last month, a delegation of US trade officials and labour rights activists from the US, Europe and Latin America visited the area and called on Fyffes’s subsidiaries to accept the union and improve working conditions.
But with members still being ostracised, union leaders are also seeking help from overseas consumers. “People could help us by boycotting products of Fyffes until they deal with this situation,” says Gómez.