The Izabal Banana Workers’ Union of Guatemala (SITRABI) is the oldest private sector union in Guatemala and represents over 3,000 workers at the Del Monte plantation and their supplier farms on the Caribbean coast. Today, approximately 92% of workers at these farms are members of the union.
During the events of hurricane ETA late last year, the plantation – comprising of 8 smaller farms and the workers living quarters – was flooded, with four of the eight farms facing severe flooding and two of them completely losing their crops altogether, according to Selfa Sandoval, SITRAP’s Culture and Social Protection Secretary.
After the floods, the Del Monte management was of the view that maintaining this source of employment in the region in the wake of the hurricane would be very difficult indeed. A huge investment would be needed in order to restore the plantation after the flooding, which had damaged and destroyed river borders, bridges, tracks, roads and drainage systems. Office buildings, packing plants and workers living quarters were also damaged, and would all need cleaning and repairing.
In its communications with the union, the company had announced that it would, therefore, be necessary to cut 400 jobs. Workers, both male and female, would be affected. In a region with few other employment opportunities available, workers and their families faced losing everything: their home, their job, their income and their community, as they faced the inevitability of moving elsewhere to find work.
When the company subsequently announced that workers and their families would be permitted to continue living in their homes on the banana plantation for only another three months, the workforce was consumed with anxiety about the future of their families. During the hurricanes, the schools had also been significantly damaged. Lives had already been turned upside down, and workers and their families were holding on to what they had left – hope that in the future, life could resume as normal.
SITRABI worked to represent the best interests of their members, maintaining daily communication via calls, visits to the farms, meetings and WhatsApp messages. The structure of the union, according to Selfa, having been designed to ensure that representatives can remain in close communication with workers at all times.
Following discussions, SITRABI put forward various proposals to the company to address workers’ fears. After an analysis of the situation, with the endorsement of the SITRABI General Assembly, it was agreed with Del Monte that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that the union had negotiated with the company would be extended, with the condition that not a single worker would lose their job or their home.
Other workers in the region have not been so lucky, with three other local plantations having ceased operations completely, with the resulting job losses for their workforce. SITRABI has remained an ally to other local banana unions, denouncing the closure of plantations and resultant job losses.
SITRABI, representing a workforce of around 3,000, has managed to protect almost the entire workforce during this challenging time. During the period of uncertainty, when employees have been unable to work and earn a living due to the flood damage, SITRABI also supported workers with the provision of basic food and hygiene necessities, following donations from international allies at Fairtrade, UNISON and Banana Link among others.
In total, only around 100 plantation workers have ended up leaving their posts – and those that have left, have done so voluntarily – some choosing to emigrate to the United States, and others taking early retirement.
Currently, things are progressing well. The plantation is recovering and being restored day by day, and workers are relieved that this important source of employment and livelihood in the region has not been lost. In the future, SITRABI hopes to negotiate specific clauses relating to the prevention and mitigation of future natural disasters into CBAs.