Published: 25/04/2002

Human Rights Watch (HRW), the respected monitor of human rights around the world, has produced a damning report, “Tainted Harvest”, that exposes conditions in the banana fields of Ecuador.

The report, based on research carried out in 2001, points to consistent and blatant denials of workers’ rights, significant exploitation of the worse forms of child labour, appalling occupational health and safety conditions and destructive environmental practices, including the irresponsible use of chemicals and reckless aerial spraying, in some cases directly onto the heads of children working in the fields.

Dole and national exporter Noboa, profit most from the appalling Ecuadorian conditions.

The report points to Dole and Noboa as the main companies profiting from these appalling Ecuadorian conditions.

Human Rights abuses – merely a public relations problem for Dole?

HRW sent a set of written questions to all major companies following their research. All company replies are reproduced in the report itself.

It is significant that Dole’s response was not sent by senior management, corporate social responsibility management or operational management. It was sent by their public relations department. One must therefore ask whether Dole views accusations of human rights abuses from a credible and globally respected human rights organization such as HRW as mere public relations problems to be addressed through “spin”!

….. Or something to hide and hide from?

Dubiously claiming “propriety business information” Dole refused to provide concrete answers to HRW questions about supplier plantations.

The remainder of Dole’s response saw the company hiding behind hardly credible endorsements of its social responsibility policies. It specifically claimed an award for its social policies conferred on it by Social Accountability International (SAI), the parent body of the SA 8000 corporate responsibility code. Dole’s reply to HRW cites this award as “the first ever ethical workplace award from Social Accountability International”

This dubious response comes from a company that has consistently restricted worker rights, that has chosen to exploit Ecuadorian social conditions more than any other international company, that has exploited small farmers, former Dole banana workers, in the Philippines and, by a significant margin, has the least number of unionized workers despite the difficult conditions faced by banana workers everywhere.

Informed readers of the report will form their own opinion of the credibility of the awards and accolades that Dole proudly trumpets and chooses to hide behind as an alternative to providing honest and good faith answers to HRW’s legitimate questions.

Value of IUF/COLSIBA/Chiquita Brands Worker Rights Agreement emerges from “Tainted Harvest”

Chiquita Brands International is also named as a significantly smaller purchaser of Ecuadorian bananas. Chiquita must naturally assume critical responsibility for any abuses amongst its suppliers in Ecuador and the IUF will continue to hold Chiquita accountable. However, in sharp contrast to Dole’s lame response to HRW, Chiquita’s Corporate Responsibility Officer welcomed the HRW research and provided detailed information showing precisely the quantities of bananas supplied by the plantations that featured in HRW’s questions.

There was no attempt to hide behind “propriety business information” and a relatively high level of transparency in Chiquita’s replies.

Chiquita were also able to point to the international worker rights agreement they signed in June 2001 with the IUF (acting on behalf of its banana worker affiliates) and COLSIBA (the coordinating body for regional banana workers’ unions).

The agreement, whilst not claiming universally acceptable practices by Chiquita or its suppliers, and certainly not bestowing any questionable awards or accolades on the company, provides a transparent, practical and credible mechanism within which Chiquita and the unions that already represent a substantial majority of its workers, can work to raise the very standards that are so clearly being abused in Ecuador.

Del Monte and national producer Noboa fail to respond

The Del Monte Fresh Fruit Company and Noboa did not respond to HRW’s questions or several letters.

Big Differences Between the Big Three!

When comparing the three major international companies, the report allows the reader to identify clearly which takes its social responsibilities seriously, is transparent about problems and has established a credible process for dealing with them, and which have done none of these things. Chiquita certainly cannot escape its legitimate responsibility for what is happening in Ecuador. However, through its work with banana unions in the region and with the IUF, it has shown credible and practical intent to raise its standards and has been doing so across all of its operations.

Del Monte apparently could not muster a reply to HRW and Dole resorted to “spin” which lacked both credibility and transparency and which sought to hide behind generalizations and dubious social responsibility awards and accolades.

The IUF welcomes Chiquita’s continued willingness to engage meaningfully with trade unions on precisely those issues that workers, though their unions, are exclusively able to improve in any sustainable or meaningful way. The IUF calls upon Dole, Del Monte and national Ecuadorian companies, particularly Noboa, to radically change their current policies and to meaningfully engage with trade unions wherever those companies grow bananas or buy fruit from local suppliers.

Only this form of credible and serious engagement can genuinely raise standards in Ecuadorian banana fields. No self-serving accolades or awards can be allowed to hide this basic fact.

The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from this report is that an enormous amount needs to be done, and done quickly, to raise standards in Ecuador and to bring social and economic justice to Ecuadorian banana workers, their families and communities. A lot of progress is needed, and quickly, if Ecuadorian bananas are not to leave a sour taste in the mouths of consumers as a result of this truly tainted harvest.

Footnote: Human Rights Watch at the IUF World Congress in May 2002.

Human Rights Watch has accepted an invitation to the IUF 24th World Congress May 14-17 to present its report during a May 15 panel discussion on human rights that will be opened with an address by The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson.

At the congress IUF affiliates will have a chance to assess the report and to order bulk copies in Spanish and English for their memberships in the scores of countries from which Congress delegates will be coming.