The Noboa family group of 110 companies is the largest corporate conglomerate in Ecuador, and belongs to Alvaro Noboa, one of Latin America’s richest men. He has made five unsuccessful attempts to win the presidency of the country. Known for its Bonita brand, under which it markets other fruit products as well as bananas, Noboa is the biggest producer and exporter of bananas in Ecuador, and the fifth largest banana company in the world (after Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte and Fyffes), controlling around 4% of the world banana market.
Noboa’s banana division, Exportadora Bananera Noboa (EBN), is one of the largest exporters to the European market and owns the biggest shipping operations in the banana industry. EBN owns over 7,000 hectares of its own banana production, with some of the highest productivity in the industry. In addition, the company buys from several hundred 'associated producers'. The company's share of Ecuador's exports has fallen considerably in recent years and is currently responsible for around 10% of Ecuador's banana exports. Noboa has made some investment in limited environmental improvements in response to supermarket requirements, but continues to be responsible for some of the poorest labour conditions in the international industry.
The majority of plantation workers in Ecuador remain unorganised, which translates into much lower labour costs for companies. Until 2008, banana companies helped perpetuate this situation by taking advantage of loopholes in labour laws. For example on the Los Alamos plantation, Noboa was found to have created over 30 phantom sub-contracting companies each with less than 30 workers, so as to avoid unionisation (30 is the minimum number required to register a union). In 2002, when workers on the plantation started organising the first new independent trade unions in Ecuador in 20 years, the company responded by hiring over 200 armed men to break up a legal strike by the workers. The violence left 19 injured and one man without his leg.
After this incident Noboa resorted to firing union leaders at Los Alamos; only a hunger strike outside the Labour Ministry in July 2003 forced the company to pay compensation to leaders sacked after they had presented a formal list of grievances in the labour courts. In October 2003, the company sacked 333 workers from four of its other plantations after it found out that they had attended training workshops on labour law and union organisation. Alvaro Noboa has openly declared: "I don't like unions, and will fight them".
Over the past decade, Noboa has been sanctioned by the Ecuadorian government for paying prices to producers which were well below the legal minimum price. Small producers had lodged complaints in 2001 that Noboa, in common with other exporters, was not respecting the minimum price, and in 2005 the company was fined over US$200,000 for non-payment of the government-fixed minimum price, although the ruling was later disputed in court.
Towards better practices?
In 2005 a first meeting took place, in the margins of the second International Banana Conference, between company representatives, FENACLE (the federation organising banana plantation workers since 2001) and the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers (IUF). Since then Noboa/Bonita played an active role in getting 56 workers, who had been fired during a strike, reinstated on one of its supplier farms, the Primavera Plantation. The company also sought to intervene in a labour conflict in another of its supplier farms.
While many are encouraged that Noboa is participating in the World Banana Forum, the company has indicated that it is only willing to hold its suppliers to adherence to Ecuadorian labour law and not to international labour standards. Nor is the company prepared to defend the right to form trade unions.
In 2011, a Noboa subsidiary, Bananera Continental, was temporarily closed down by government authorities over an alleged failure to report to tax authorities. The company claimed the action was purely political.
The Noboa Section on the US/LEAP website.
Billionaires Slippery Situation, an article on www.forbes.com by Michael Freedman, 17 March 2003. Denied by his late father, Alvaro Noboa finally won control of the family's banana business in Ecuador. The cost: embittered siblings and $20 million in legal fees.
Los Alamos "I don't like unions. I will fight them" - A short film telling the story of what happened to banana workers on the Los Alamos plantation in Ecuador when workers decided to organise and strike to gain basic labour rights. Watch 'Los Alamos' on youtube or email Banana Link to buy the DVD.
Photos: Banana worker Ecuador
FENACLE strike, Ecuador