More than 300 labourers, almost all of them indigenous Panamanians working on plantations for a branch of the U.S. corporation Del Monte Foods, have been on strike since Jan. 16 to protest harassment of trade unionists, changes in schedules and working conditions, delayed payment of wages and dismissals considered illegal.
“The company laid us off on Dec. 31 and when it rehired us on Jan. 3 it said we were new workers and that any modification of the work applied to us. But according to legal precedent, to be considered a new worker at least a month has to go by,” said Federico Abrego, one of the striking workers from Panama.
“The plantations that are on strike belong to Corbana (Corporación Bananera Nacional) and are leased to Del Monte,” lawmaker Gerardo Vargas, who represents the Caribbean coastal province of Limón, told Tierramérica. “Two years ago there was a big strike over the subhuman conditions, poor wages and immigration problems and a union was founded. In December the contract with Corbana expired, and when they renewed it, the company did something that infringed the rules: they set up a new union, dismissed all of the workers, and only hired back those who were in the new union. The new conflict broke out as a result,” said Vargas
Abrego and most of the more than 300 workers on strike on the Sixaola plantations 1, 2 and 3 belong to the Ngöbe and Bugle indigenous groups, who live in a self-governed indigenous county in Panama across the border from Costa Rica, where many go to find work. The plantations in Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastal region are the scenario of frequent conflicts between workers and the big banana companies, and the current strike on the Sixaola plantations is just one example. A large proportion of the banana industry is in the hands of transnational corporations. Besides Del Monte, there are branches of other U.S. firms like Chiquita Brands, which controls 24 percent of the country’s banana exports, or the Dole Food Company. The banana industry carries a heavy weight in the country, especially the Caribbean coastal region. According to statistics from Corbana, it employs 6.2 percent of Costa Rica’s workforce and 77 percent of all workers in the Caribbean region. The industry represents seven percent of the country’s exports, and last year it brought in 900 million dollars.
Between 70 and 90 percent of Panama’s 417,000 indigenous people live in poverty, according to a 2014 United Nations report. Abrego is a classic example of these plantation workers. The 53-year-old Gnöbe Indian has been working on banana plantations in Costa Rica since 1993. He now lives with his wife and eight children, half of whom are still of school age, in a house that belongs to the Banana Development Corporation (Bandeco), a branch of Del Monte. “My fellow strikers ask me about the food and tell me the same thing my family tells me at home: that they don’t have anything to eat while we’re waiting to be rehired,” said Abrego, the leader of the trade union at the Sixaola 3 plantation. “I’m trying to get by without an income, with what I can scrounge up. But there are guys with small children who are having a harder time,” he said with a heavy heart, before explaining that the striking workers prepared communal meals to survive.