COSTA RICA: Pineapples, exotic yet unethical fruits

Efficient production in harmony with nature and employment policies that benefit workers”; these are the pillars of Grupo Acón’s ‘philosophy’. However according to our union partner, SITRAP, Grupo Acón is one of the most virulent oppressors of unions in Costa Rica. Pablo López has experienced this behaviour first hand. Since being unfairly dismissed in July 2010, from the Acón pineapple plantation Piña Frut, he has found no fixed work and has been ‘blacklisted’. In response to Pablo’s vulnerable situation, SITRAP is calling for international solidarity to demand that Grupo Acón reinstate him as an employee and cease their anti-union practices.

Costa Rica is the world’s primary pineapple exporter, supplying 75% of all pineapples sold in the EU.

Migrant labour: the secret of the pineapple market

Three quarters of the workforce in the Costa Rican pineapple industry are migrant workers, primarily single men originating from Nicaragua who are seen as a source of ‘cheap and flexible’ labour. Often without papers, work permits or visas, migrants find themselves in a vulnerable situation, under threat of dismissal at the slightest sign of union activity.

The Piña Frut plantation belongs to Grupo Acón, a Costa Rican company operating in the Limón province. The company is the biggest pineapple producer in the country, supplying fruit to the international supermarket chains, Wal-Mart and Tesco. Pablo, a Nicaraguan who arrived in Costa Rica in 1992, started work on the plantation on September 27, 2004. On June 2, 2006, he and other colleagues created the first union committee on the plantation and became well recognised union representatives of SITRAP. As a union representative, Pablo addressed many cases of union persecution, unfair dismissals and wage decreases. He participated in several negotiation meetings with Grupo Acón, the Ministry of Labour and with Tesco as a member of the Piña Frut plantation union committee. Particularly sensitive to migrant rights, Pablo intervened personally against operations led by immigration police targeting migrant union members within the plantation.

Intimidation, dismissal and vulnerability

Such strong union commitment did not please the board members of Grupo Acón. Between 2006 and 2010, Pablo was discrimated against and intimidated in an attempt to force him to renounce his union activities. He was subject to several wage decreases and was also assigned to a lower paid position without consultation. Pablo was often forced to change his working hours, including night shifts or work on his days off, all without compensation. When Pablo put himself forward for election to the plantation’s Permanent Worker’s Committee, and was predicted to win, the company illegally intervened in the convening of an election meeting to prevent his being elected.

On July 8 2010, Pablo and SITRAP filed a formal complaint of anti-union persecution with the Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MTSS) but, three weeks later on July 29, Pablo received a dismal notice effective from August 29 on the pretext of declining production levels. Since then, Pablo’s situation has become more and more precarious. It seems clear that he has been placed on a ‘blacklist’. A widespread anti-union practice, ‘blacklisting’ allows companies to list the names of unionised employees, which are then shared with other companies within the sector to impede subsequent employment. Following his dismissal in July 2010, Pablo has been unable to find work and worries for his future. The Ministry of Labour confirmed in August 2011 (one year later) that Grupo Acón’s intervention into committee election processes was illegal, finally opening the way for effective court action*.

Pablo’s case is not uncommon. Victore Manuel Lira Ponce, Mauricio Figueroa Morales and Luis Esaú Espinoza Rivera all suffered the same fate in July 2011. According to SITRAP ‘the plantation has dismissed 30 union members since SITRAP has been present there. They are all on the blacklist. Approximately 60 workers have been forced to resign from the union but later dismissed anyway ’.

*The administrative procedures in Costa Rica are extremely slow and rarely lead to company prosecutions, due to corporate influence at the Ministry of Labour.

Message to Jorge Acón Sánchez, President of Grupo Acón

Dear Mr Acón,

I have been informed by SITRAP of the hardship suffered by Pablo López and his colleagues since their dismissals because of union activity. I am concerned by the vulnerable situation Pablo currently finds himself in due to the measures taken against workers who have joined the SITRAP union.

I therefore ask you to: – reinstate Pablo López as an employee within the Piña Frut plantation. – reinstate the other recently dismissed workers: Victor Manuel Lira Ponce, Mauricio Figueroa Morales and Luis Esaú Espinoza Rivera. – pay the salary owed to Pablo López since the end of his dismissal effective from August 29, 2010. – cease all illegal anti-union practices, including the unfair dismissals of union members.

Yours sincerely,

(Copied to Tesco, ASDA Wal-Mart and COLSIBA)

Message to Sandra Piszk Feinzilber, Minister of Labour

Dear Minister,

I have been informed by SITRAP of the hardship suffered by Pablo López and his colleagues since their dismissals because of union activity. I am concerned by the vulnerable situation Pablo currently finds himself in due to the measures taken against workers who have joined the SITRAP union.

I therefore ask you to:

  • initiate, as soon as possible, proper legal processes to address the dismissal of Pablo López and the illegal anti-union practices of Grupo Acón, which were acknowledged by the Ministry of Labour in its resolution of August 10, 2011 (Huetar Atlántica Region, Limón).
  • ensure that Grupo Acón reinstates Pablo López as an employee in the Piña Frut plantation, along with the other recently dismissed workers: Victor Manuel Lira Ponce, Mauricio Figueroa Morales and Luis Esaú Espinoza Rivera, and pay the wages owed to Pablo López since the date of his dismissal on August 29 2010.
  • ensure that all illegal anti-union practices are ceased, such as the unfair dismissal and persecution of union members and ‘blacklisting’ practices.

Yours sincerely,

(Copied to SITRAP)