Impunity in Honduras – Will Chiquita Take a Stand?

Tomás Membreño Pérez, president of an agricultural workers union in Honduras, has received death threats because of his union work. Credit: Courtesy Tomás Membreño Pérez and Solidarity Center

In the United States, two-thirds of the bananas we eat come from Central America. In countries like Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras, workers spend up to 12 hours a day cultivating, harvesting, washing, labeling and packing the banana bunches that appear in the produce department of your local grocery store.

While the banana industry has cleaned up its act in recent decades (Chiquita’s 2001 labor rights agreement with banana unions contrasts starkly with its funding of Colombian paramilitaries who murdered trade unionists in the 1990s, for example), banana plantations in Latin America continue to violate the rights of workers.

In Honduras, where bananas are the country’s second biggest export (after coffee), employees who try to improve their working conditions by joining a union are routinely harassed, fired, or threatened with violence.

On September 3rd, Honduran union president Tomás Membreño Pérez was followed by an unknown vehicle while traveling with a fellow union leader, only a few days after an anonymous Facebook message had warned him that he’d be killed if he continued his work on behalf of workers at a Chiquita-owned banana plantation. Pérez had also received a phone call in July warning him to “be careful with what you’re doing, or you’ll regret it.

Workers at the Finca Santa Rita plantation, located in the department of Yoro, have struggled for years to resolve conflicts with management and gain secure recognition of their union, STAS (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria).

Past abuses committed on this plantation, which was previously known as Tres Hermanas, were cited in a DR-CAFTA complaint filed by the AFL-CIO in 2012 with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL findings, released in March 2015, substantiated the violations that workers had long reported, like failing to pay the minimum wage and firing union organizers.

The recent threats against Tomás Membreño Pérez are likely also motivated by his involvement in Honduras’ CAFTA Complaint Commission, which documents these types of abuses, and the Association for Participatory Citizenship’s Network against Anti-Union Violence.

The situation faced by Pérez is eerily similar to what happened in 2013 and 2014 to trade unionist José María (Chema) Martínez, who was forced to flee the country last year after receiving death threats for hosting a radio show that denounced Tres Hermanas’ treatment of workers.

Supporters of USLEAP (U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project) may remember that the Tres Hermanas plantation lost its Rainforest Alliance certification in late 2013 after labor rights groups, including ILRF and USLEAP, pointed out its well-documented history of labor rights violations.

The current struggle of workers on the plantation is an about-face from February of this year, when Chiquita purchased and renamed it Finca Santa Rita – and seemed to indicate a friendlier environment for workers by initially welcoming their participation in the union STAS.

But fast forward to September 2015, and Finca Santa Rita’s refusal to negotiate with the workers’ established union is evidence of continued non-compliance with Rainforest Alliance standards. Further, STAS argues that in mid-August, the plantation effectively reduced salaries to below the minimum wage. Management claims to have negotiated the lower rate with a company-controlled organization that it has pressured employees to join instead of STAS.

According to the AFL-CIO, however, Finca Santa Rita owes employees over $50,000 in back wages, and the Ministry of Labor has thus far failed to respond adequately to workers’ complaints.

Meanwhile, workers on another plantation that supplies Chiquita, Finca Tropical, have also been experiencing similar labor rights violations since at least 2014. This company also established an organization named "Trato Justo" ("Just Treatment") as an alternative to the union, but the company organization is not legally registered with the Ministry of Labor.

Thanks in part to workers’ enlistment of the trade union confederation FESTAGRO (Federación de Sindicatos de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria) and European allies to pursue a letter writing campaign, the Ministry of Labor has attempted to fine Finca Tropical for its abuses. But workers say that when inspectors showed up in August, management simply refused to let them in the door.

The abuses taking place at Finca Santa Rita and Finca Tropical are stark reminders that even when a company claims that all of its own plantations and long-term suppliers are Rainforest Alliance certified, we cannot assume that workers are being treated fairly and allowed to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of association.  

Right now, Honduran unions and their allies are developing a campaign to hold Chiquita, Rainforest Alliance, and other companies accountable to their public commitments to ensure workers’ freedom to join unions.  USLEAP will meet partners in Honduras next month to help plan an effective strategy to pressure companies to honor their rhetoric with real action.

But this work will simultaneously require action against the overwhelming condition of impunity in Honduras and threats of violence against trade unionists like Tomás Membreño Pérez.

USLEAP will continue to update our supporters on his situation and the workers at Finca Santa Rita and Finca Tropical. Stay tuned for future blog posts and follow us on social media (Twitter, Facebook) for information on how you can help.