The principles of ‘Decent Work’ – freedom, equity, security and human dignity – are commonly violated in the tropical fruit industries. Plantation workers are often denied the right to organise freely into trade unions and thus take collective action to improve their conditions at work.
Trade unions play a crucial role in the fight against poverty in producing countries by educating workers about their rights and how to use these as a tool to bargain with companies to promote decent work. The majority of tropical fruit workers are young – below the age of 30 – and have minimal awareness about their rights.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO), which is part of the UN, promotes core international labour standards – on freedom of association and collective bargaining, child labour, forced labour and discrimination – that are enshrined by law in every tropical fruit producing country.
There are however many challenges – in terms of political will, institutional capacity and resources – to implementing these standards at plantation level. National governments in producer countries value the foreign investment provided by multinational fruit companies and in many countries these companies also have an influential role in political decisions. Workers and trade unions struggle to push cases of labour rights violations through the national justice systems and national labour inspectorates often lack the capacity to support this process.
International solidarity from NGO’s and trade unions in consumer countries can significantly increase the capacity of trade unions in producer countries to represent their members. Acts of solidarity can include financial support (repression and wage levels can mean unions struggle to function on membership subs alone); issuing Urgent Actions for consumers to lobby companies and governments in response to acts of severe repression and / or violence; supporting unions to have a stronger voice at national and international levels including meeting with European supermarkets and MEPs; engaging in international awareness campaigns such as ‘Make Fruit Fair’.
Trade unions in producer countries also belong to Global Union Federations. One of these, the IUF (international Union of Food and Allied Workers) facilitated and monitors a tripartite agreement on labour standards between themselves, workers (COLSIBA), and the multinational fruit company (Chiquita).
If workers have the strength and freedom to defend their rights and bargain with employers, working conditions and wage levels can be improved to the benefit of workers, their families and local communities. Consumers can in turn be safe in the knowledge that the goods they buy are produced in conditions that are safe and decent and which enable working people to maintain their dignity and a reasonable standard of living.