Guatemala: Banana Workers Union Leader Assassinated
Written by Kimberly Kern
Wednesday, 24 October 2007
On September 23rd, Marco Tulio Portela Ramirez, a union organizer, was gunned down outside his home as he prepared to go to work at the Bandegua banana plantation, a subsidiary of Del Monte Fresh Produce.
The production of bananas in Guatemala takes place in large monoculture plantations where labor conditions are very poor. Workers receive low wages which often don’t cover the basic needs of their families and endure long 12-hour work days and exposure to dangerous chemicals. Furthermore, employees lack the freedom to organize independent trade unions and negotiate agreements with their employers in order to improve these working conditions. Those who have tried to organize have come under attack from both transnational banana companies and independent banana producers. Illegal firings, plantation closures, temporary contracts, civil law suits, trumped up criminal charges, and violence targeting union leaders have all become commonplace. So far in 2007, four unionists have been assassinated in Guatemala and no charges have been made against the guilty parties.
According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the Guatemalan Constitution recognizes workers’ freedom of association and states that all workers retain the right to form and join trade unions. Workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively under the condition that 25% of the total workers are in agreement and possess the right to strike provided that 50% support the strike.
The Constitution also provides for a judicial system to rule specifically on violations of the Labor Code. Unfortunately, the labor courts in Guatemala are overrun with backlogged cases that can drag on for years. Even when they issue rulings, the courts have insufficient power to ensure that their decisions are respected. Consequently, employers tend to dismiss the Labor Code and are rarely held accountable for illegal firings, negligent work conditions and violence against union organizers.
Del Monte, the third largest producer of bananas, is owned and controlled by the Chilean-based IAT Group (based in the United Arab Emirates), which maintains its headquarters in Miami, Florida. As of 2005, Del Monte controlled about 15% of the world banana trade. Along with the other major banana producers like Chiquita and Dole, they yield a great deal of power in Latin America and can sell bananas to the northern markets at an extremely cut-rate price. According to a French research institute CIRAD, “only 12% of the final retail price stays in the producing countries. An even smaller proportion goes to small farmers (5-7%) or to plantation workers (1-3%)”. The rest is profit in the pockets of the CEO’s and investors.
Bandegua, the Guatemalan subsidiary of Del Monte, is one of many companies with a long history of targeting trade unionists. In 1999, Bandegua dismissed 900 workers who were involved in the Banana Workers Union of Izabal (SITRABI), the oldest and one of the most powerful unions in Guatemala. On October 13th of that year, a heavily armed attack was led against the union organizers who were planning a massive protest in response to the dismissals. Consequently, seven members of SITRABI fled to the US to defend their lives and pursued a case against Bandegua. As a response, the US government placed Guatemala’s trade benefits on probation until Guatemalan courts convicted the criminals. Unfortunately, due to the sustained violence in Guatemala, the seven organizers continue to live in the US.
On March 7th, 2000, The International Union of Food and Agriculture Workers (UIF) signed an agreement with Del Monte Fresh Produce, which set up local negotiations between Bandegua and SITRABI and committed the company to respecting minimum labor standards. The new agreement ensured that all 900 workers who were illegally fired be allowed to return to their jobs and explicitly stated that all workers had the right to join SITRABI.
Although all parties signed the agreement, acts of violence and intimidation continue. In November of 2006, Cesar Humberto Guerra, the Labor and Conflicts Secretary of SITRABI, was followed by three armed men while driving through the Chicasaw banana plantations in a vehicle owned by SITRABI. The men fired their guns in the air and threw a stone at the windshield of the car.
In July, 2007, military officers forcibly entered a SITRABI union meeting demanding to know the identity of the union’s leaders, the size of its membership and the nature of its occupation. In response, SITRABI filed complaints with the Public Ministry and the Ministry of Defense in Guatemala, who promised there would be an “internal investigation.” According to a statement by the Solidarity Center from September 18, “Military officers had been disciplined by the Ministry of Defense in response to SITRABI complaints about the unlawful entry.”
Five days later, as Marco Tulio Portela Ramirez prepared to go to work at the Bandegua banana plantation, he was brutally gunned down in front of his house by armed, masked men carrying high caliber weapons. Marco was the Secretary of Culture and Sport at SITRABI and his brother, Noé Ramirez, is the General Secretary. According to STITCH, a nationwide group of women organizing for social justice, SITRABI strongly believes that this killing is directly related to their fight to end the intimidation and harassment of the union.
In his statement on September 30th, Noé Ramirez declared, “At the wake and burial of my brother’s mortal remains, I saw how hundreds of workers who were there with us cried at the loss of a fellow unionist, but also how we all committed ourselves to continue forward with our struggle, refusing to be silenced, because we are not alone: we are supported by allies all over the world….I would like to ask you all to keep pressuring the government and the rest of the Guatemalan authorities so that they will immediately investigate and solve Marco Tulio’s murder, and punish both the material and intellectual perpetrators of this crime and their accomplices.”
In response to this assassination, Solidarity Center Executive Director Ellie Larson said, “The systematic attacks on SITRABI constitute backsliding on worker rights enforcement in Guatemala. No worker should lose his life for exercising a fundamental right to participate in a union. Together we must break down the wall of impunity and rebuild respect for worker and human rights.”
Kimberly Kern (Austin, TX) lives in Guatemala and works with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). She can be reached at email@example.com.
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