Jesús “Chito” Martínez is a benchmark of Latin American rural unionism. A companion loved by his peers who has managed to earn the respect of the company.
In dialogue with IUF Latin America, the secretary of labour and conflict of the Izabal Banana Workers Union (SITRABI) talks through his history as a banana worker, and about the agreement recently reached with Bandegua (Del Monte) and the precautionary measures that have been implemented to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.
How many years have you been working in the banana sector?
I started in 1967 at the United Fruit Company, working for 53 years in the sector and 48 years at Del Monte.
Can you identify a difference between these companies?
Yes, especially with regard to working hours. Until 1972, the normal thing was to work from 6 in the morning to 6 in the afternoon, that is, 12 hours, and that changed when in that year the union prevailed, demanding that the legal day be reduced to 8 hours and if it was necessary to work more, that those hours would be paid as overtime.
Was it difficult to organise unions at the United Fruit Company, which today is known as Chiquita?
Without a doubt, at that time there was a union, SETUFCO , which in 25 years was able to negotiate a single collective agreement. Then, in 1972, when United decided to sell to the transnational Del Monte , we managed to advance negotiations and the organisation began to expand.
There was a lot of fear of joining the union because the least that could happen to you was being fired. In those times, there was persecution and repression with total impunity.
In recent years, the relationship between Sitrabi and Bandegua has traveled along the lanes of dialogue and negotiation.
From the year 2000, things improved, but until that year, the relationship between managers, almost always from Costa Rica, and the union, was complex. They were reluctant to engage in dialogue and the number of conflicts was large and permanently ongoing.
The last great strike that we carried out lasted 39 days and there went Eric Giménez, Operations Manager, that caused us various conflicts and serious problems that made many comrades even have to go into exile.
In 2000 Marco Antonio García , who you know, joined the general management of Bandegua. At first we met with him and he told us: “here things have to change, here there are a lot of rebellious workers who have become ungovernable”.
To which we replied: “There are also many bosses, many administrators, many foremen who are like that, so you take care of your people and we take care of ours.”
Since then, we have started to maintain a good relationship with Bandegua.
In all this time the Union recognizes that the IUF has contributed to these instances of social dialogue. They have given us the support as many times as we have needed and have been essential for us, contributing to the solution of various problems.
All workers know what role our IUF Latin America has played so that the union has the strength it has today and we are able to face the problems that always exist.
For the last time
A few days ago they signed an agreement with Bandegua …
Yes, it was a situation that we had to manage. A pay increase of 2.6 percent had been agreed as of November 2019, but due to a strong storm that destroyed part of the production, we were asked for an extension, so that this increase would be from this month of May.
Now the Covid 19 pandemic has affected the market and Bandegua requested a new extension until October. We analysed this possibility, but we understood that certain conditions should be met.
The main thing is that the company will pay the salary of all those workers who, for reasons related to the pandemic, must go to insurance. Another point clarified the situation of the personnel hired for emergencies and permanent workers, since we observed inequities in this regard.
A clause was signed that stipulates that if between May and October the market improves and the company resumes exports, the increase occurs retrospectively.
And finally it was established that this would be the last time that we would accept this type of proposal in case the company had difficulties. All this was agreed and then we signed last Thursday.
Guillermo Rivera , president of Sintrainagro , was here in January , and in an exhibition he stated: “many times to maintain job security you have to help companies, which does not mean that we are helping entrepreneurs” Those words of Guillermo stayed with me.
The measures applied before the pandemic
Are the union and the company carrying out the biosecurity protocols for the prevention of Covid 19 together?
Yes, we are taking extreme care in that regard. Special emphasis is placed on surface hygiene, daily health check-ups are carried out, water, soap and gel alcohol are available in all sectors for the proper cleaning of hands and also for the disinfection of footwear.
Likewise, the distance between workers in the packing plant is taken care of, gloves and boots are worn and the ventilation system was improved.
When any worker has symptoms, they are removed from the group and they are checked immediately.
Have there been infections?
In Izabal (northeastern region of Guatemala ) there are only two cases, and none of them are of banana workers.
Congratulations on the job, we know very well the severe restrictions that limit union activity in Guatemala.
We must continue, that is the way, together with the organisations that make up the IUF Regional.
Interview reproduced from www.rel-uita.org
Photo: Jesús “Chito” Martínez (Gerardo Iglesias)