Stop Attacking Costa Rican Banana Workers – Catholic Church Is Urged

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‘Trade union members are threatened, victimised, sacked and blacklisted by employers who pay sums of money to the Catholic Church which coordinates anti-union activities,’ said the GMB union on Tuesday.

The GMB was holding a protest at Westminster Cathedral on Tuesday, to ‘ask the Pope to end the undermining of banana workers in Costa Rica by the Catholic Church’.

In support of banana workers union Sitrap in Costa Rica, the GMB is launching a major UK campaign to secure an end to the Pope John XXIII School in the capital San Jose being used to promote the anti-trade union strategies of the employers in Costa Rica’s tropical fruit plantations.

This centre was established by the Catholic diocese of San Jose in 1963 and its union busting activities are a relic of the Cold War, said the union.

At the demonstration on Tuesday at the Cathedral Piazza, Westminster Cathedral, young Costa Rican tropical fruit worker Johanna Thomas told News Line: ‘We are here to protest against problems being caused by the “Solidarisimo” in the banana and pineapple plantations in Costa Rica.

‘The plantation owners in Costa Rica use the Solidarisimo to try to delete the unions.’

The GMB’s International Officer Bert Schouwenburg told News Line: ‘To put it bluntly, the Catholic Church Diocese of San Jose in Costa Rica trains people in union-busting.

‘They promote something called “Solidarisimo”, which is a form of credit union and they use it to make a “direct agreement” with the workers – it’s a sort of yellow union.

‘There are 40,000 banana workers on poverty pay, real wages have halved since 1985.

‘In the eighties the unions were strong and there were collective agreements everywhere, but the Juan XXlll school in the diocese of San Jose is involved in a sustained campaign to break the unions in tropical fruit production.

‘The GMB have a direct link with Sitrap and we are going to Costa Rica in two weeks to assess the situation and help in every way we can.’

Tuesday’s demonstration will be followed by more protests outside other church properties as part of the campaign.

The GMB said it will seek to persuade the Catholic Church that employee relations in Costa Rica should be left to recognised trade unions and employers by means of free collective bargaining under the auspices of internationally recognised norms (such as ILO) as interpreted by national law.

Banana workers in Costa Rica are poorly paid and their attempts to form unions are ruthlessly repressed with the support of the Catholic Church.

In September last year Sitrap and GMB agreed to cooperate to raise labour standards right across the tropical fruit supply chain.

Real wages on banana plantations have halved since 1985 and an industry that was 90 per cent covered by collective bargaining agreements at plantation level in 1980 now has just one.

Twenty-five per cent of all bananas sold in the UK come from Costa Rica.

Before Tuesday’s demonstration, Schouwenburg said: ‘Behind Costa Rica’s democratic façade, workers on the republic’s banana and pineapple plantations endure appalling conditions in an unforgiving tropical climate.

‘Trade union members are routinely threatened, victimised, sacked and blacklisted by employers who pay significant sums of money for the services of the Juan XXIII School’s promoters who coordinate anti-union activities.

‘The School is a relic of the Cold War and the Roman Catholic Church should be ashamed of its activities.

‘Pope Benedict should show just who the top banana is by reading it the last rites and closing it down forthwith.

‘The Church should practice what it preaches.’

Gilberth Bermudez General Secretary of Sitrap said: ‘Sitrap members in the banana plantations in Costa Rica will warmly welcome this campaign by our trade union colleagues in the UK.

‘We hope that the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols Archbishop of Westminster will listen and use his influence to ask the Pope to stop the Church being used as an instrument to repress our members.

‘We deserve as much from the Church whose founder drove the money lenders from the Temple and preached the Sermon on the Mount.’

The Juan XXIII School is the centre that was established by the diocese of San Jose in 1963 to promote anti-trade union strategies in Costa Rica’s tropical fruit plantations.

Employers pay the schools’ promoters to dissuade workers from joining trade unions and establish instead so-called Permanent Committees who then make direct agreements with the companies on behalf of the workforce.

This is done under the umbrella of ‘Solidarista’ organisations which are a kind of credit union enshrined in Costa Rican law.

They have been presented as substitutes for trade unions as part of a uniquely Costa Rican solution to labour conflict but are not recognised as such by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Despite this, newly elected President, Laura Chinchilla, has pledged to support legislation to legitimise what has been happening in practice for 25 years.

The established norms in Costa Rica’s Constitution and Labour Code incorporate international conventions and there are ministries of Labour and Social Security tasked with overseeing workers’ rights.

However, there is a deep rooted anti-trade union culture in the tropical fruit sector.

The Ministry of Labour is chronically under-resourced and there is little political will to make employers comply with the law.

When cases are brought to law, the judicial system can take years to have them resolved.