Del Monte: A can of worms

Rob Ray reports on the devastation and horror surrounding America’s biggest fruit giant.

January 2006 was a big month for a smiling guy in a white suit. The plucky fellow has every reason to say "Yes" to trade legislation he himself has helped organise which will finally break his great enemy.

The man with the big grin is San-Francisco based Richard G Wolford, CEO of Del Monte since April 1997, and currently paid $2.5m a year. His great enemy is independent banana growers, protected by the EU so they can sell enough fruit to survive.

The trade legislation is a new enforcement of international law forcing Britain, along with other countries in the EU, to repeal a quota system which currently guarantees some independent growers a market for their goods - one of the few pieces of socially responsible legislation left on its books.

Instead, these will be replaced with temporarily cheaper bananas grown on massive plantations in Ecuador, Brazil and Guatemala. I say temporarily, because with no competition, Del Monte, along with fellow transnational food giants Chiquita and Dole*, will now have a near-total monopoly on production. Historically, this sort of control has lead to price hikes every time.

Having destroyed these self-sufficient communities, deliberately consigning thousands of people to poverty, Wolford plans to replace them with Del Monte’s own particular brand of production. It’s not good news.

It’s corporate policy mate
The company has a global turnover of $3bn, of which $592.9m is profit. They employ a grand total of 17,600 workers, of whom 9,800 are seasonal - paid only at picking time. They control over 15% of the global banana-growing market. To put that in perspective, the Australian Banana Growers’ council has over 2,000 members, and produces less than 1% of world output.

So Del Monte are not good for employment levels. This is because they run a few massive farms which remain understaffed. Rather than employ enough workers to manually keep crops healthy, they spray vast quantities of chemicals on their produce - known as ‘dollar crops’ in the trade.

The results of this policy, continued since the 1940s, are beginning to come to light in the communities where they started. Del Monte are currently being sued by various human rights groups and individuals for massive pollution of land, and for not protecting workers using highly dangerous pesticides.

In 1995 for example, they attempted to sell off land to the US government that they had rendered unusable through excessive pesticide use. The groundwater at Del Monte’s pineapple plantation on O`ahu, Hawaii was found to be heavily contaminated with dibromochloropropane (a carcinogen) and ethylene dibromide (a deadly poison used on rats). If successful, the sale would have meant the Hawaiian government was liable for the cost of the cleanup.

Heptachlor, a pesticide banned by the US in 1978 as one of the most hazardous chemicals to human health ever devised, was also routinely used, not just at O`ahu, but in Kenya, where in 1993 they imported 10,000 litres of the toxic compound as an insecticide for their pineapple fields. The company claim that they had no legal duty to stop using it before that time, and that their records of health and safety for the period were adequate, though they had no comprehensive training records for their employees.

Hundreds of their workers marched over the issue in 2000, over their working conditions, safety standards and sexual harassment from senior management, as highly dangerous chemicals were still being used.

But it’s not just contamination of land and the food we eat that is a problem. The few workers they do employ have been subjected to unsafe, poorly paid and inhuman conditions.

Workers’ rites
In Costa Rica, health and safety is poor enough that babies are being born without feet, or hands. Infertility, skin diseases and illness is common amongst large sections of the population. Their stock of fish has crumbled, disease is spreading among the monoculture crops and wages have dropped since the multinationals took over to below minimum wage. Non-union workers are sometimes not even provided with face masks for crop-spraying, according to one source. Nicaraguan workers have successfully sued over the same conditions, so these are not isolated occurrences, they seem to be matter-of-fact policy.

The situation is set to get worse as the race to find ever-cheaper workforces continues, more unfettered than ever before. With a continued need to improve profit margins and a stagnant market for their goods, Del Monte, Dole and Chiquita are already outsourcing from unionised areas such as Guatemala to ultra-poor countries like - in the case of Del Monte - Northeast Brazil, which has no intention of letting unions improve living standards and operate at rates a third cheaper than countries like Ecuador, Guatemala or Colombia.

This has left governments of countries where unionisation has taken place desperately trying to lower their own citizens’ living standards to compensate. In Nicaragua, unions have been kicked out of the plantations, and workers are being paid less than $1.20 a day. In Colombia, legislation has been passed making it illegal to pay banana workers more than double the minimum wage, after paramilitary death squads failed to break the unions or prevent them from raising living standards.

In Guatemala, the government have directly assaulted their own citizenry. In March 1998, Fresh Del Monte, who had been spun off from the parent company in 1994, illegally sacked workers trying to organise a union at two of their banana plantations. They then locked out the entire workforce from the sites, accused them of conducting an illegal strike and demanded the ‘ringleaders’ be arrested.

In May the government decided to support Fresh Del Monte. A judge ordered that workers be evicted, and by October of 1999, the union leaders had been allegedly forced to resign at gunpoint by up to 200 paramilitary terrorists, including the head of security for Fresh Del Monte’s Guatemalan subsidiary. 900 workers had been fired and the plantations had been rented out to independent producers.

It was only after an international solidarity campaign that the union was reinstated and the workers returned. In the meantime wages had dropped from $300 per month plus benefits to $180 a month without.

Ecuador is the largest exporter of bananas in the world, 4.5 million tonnes representing more than twice the amount of their nearest rival. Del Monte take 13% of their total produce from the South American nation. Ecuador is notorious for the poor quality of its wages and human rights. Human Rights Watch have found evidence of widespread child labour on banana plantations and anti-union measures from the government.

This has been enthusiastically supported by the international community and major supermarket chains such as ASDA, who continue to stock ever cheaper fruit in their stores, paid for by these attacks on living standards. In November 2002, the US awarded preferential trade agreements to Ecuador. In the two years since, child labour has continued, and in December last year, President Gutiérrez replaced the entire top judiciary with his own supporters.

Del Monte have said nothing. They are however looking at the possibility of moving to countries such as Cameroon with even worse human rights records, as it’s cheaper.

But the US is safe... surely

Del Monte state in their official US filings on pensions: “We sponsor non-contributory defined benefit pension plan, defined contribution plans, multi-employer plans and certain other unfunded retirement benefit plans. Retirees may also be eligible for medical, dental and life insurance benefits if they meet certain age and service requirements at retirement.”

Apparently, this largesse is limited. At home, the company is in trouble with the US government on several issues.
- They are currently in court for their failure to warn consumers about the presence of methylmercury, a compound that causes brain damage, in the company’s canned tuna produce.
- They are being prosecuted for flouting clean air regulations at their Pittsburgh power station site.
- They are being sued for stock misrepresentation in their acquisition of the Heinz corporation in 2002.
- They are being sued for poor health and safety standards leading to workplace injury.

Del Monte are just one of three or four massive conglomerates operating in similar ways. All of the above examples have been copied, sometimes to the letter, by Dole (the majority holder of Ecuador’s banana plantations) and Chiquita.

Chiquita in particular deserve mention here because they were sued by their own stockholders in 1996 for, among other things: Bribing Colombian officials, routinely spraying toxic chemicals on unprotected workers in the field, employing paramilitaries to raze plantation villages to the ground, illegal rotation of workers around worksites to prevent unionisation and helping friendly companies to avoid tax.

In Colombia, Chiquita have admitted to funding far-right paramilitary group the AUC - responsible for thousands of slayings of human rights workers, trades unionists and community activists across the region - to the tune of $1.7m between 1997 and 2004, and have been charged with smuggling weaponry for the terror group through their private ports.

This is an ongoing, worsening process, and the logical conclusion of giving limitless power to giant corporations with nothing to temper their profiteering. It is the ‘bottom line’ that profit comes before people, because without profit, there is no company, whereas people are ten a penny.

* All three companies joined forces to push the legislation through, and have close ties. Richard Wolford was until 1997 a senior executive on the board of Dole for example.