Discussion: Appreciating female farmworkers this International Women's Day
By Fresh Fruit Portal editor Matthew Ogg
The U.K.-based Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) is reviewing a report on farm conditions at a Fyffes melon supplier in Honduras, where the majority of workers are women.
As a straight news story you could imagine the sort of vein this article would follow - I'd detail the allegations of what's going on, quote a few people either directly from the union on the ground or their overseas counterparts, and get Fyffes' perspective on it all too.
What does the Irish multinational have to say about its social responsibility projects and the internal mechanisms to respond to worker complaints on the farms of its suppliers or subsidiaries?
Unfortunately, despite much insistence Fyffes will not be providing any specific information of this kind.
"Fyffes has a responsible attitude towards the environment, our growers, our customers and the consumer and we’re proud of our corporate social responsibility and sustainability profiles," a spokesperson told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"We deal with employee relations at a local level and are actively engaged in employee consultation processes in all countries where Fyffes operates.
"We have no comment to make in relation to the unsubstantiated claims made by GMB," he said, referring to the U.K.-based National Union of General and Municipal Workers (GMB), which is in direct contact with workers on the ground in Central America and on Feb. 11 made explosive allegations about the treatment of female workers on Fyffes-affiliated plantations.
As I persisted trying to get an interview with anyone from Fyffes, emphasizing how distressing the allegations were and how understanding the company's perspective would help the public understand what was really happening, the final response was that I was simply 'entitled to my opinion'.
As a reporter I would much rather write a news story than an opinion piece, but in my view a news story ought to include a good amount of information from both sides, and through not being socially proactive or open enough to discuss its farm operations with the press, I can only surmise the following opinion about Fyffes on this International - including the developing world - Women's Day:
Fyffes is not doing enough to address concerns raised by the women who produce the fruit that help make it the leading supplier of melons to the United States.
As I was told, I'm entitled to my opinion.
Now let's hear the opinion of Theo Schouwenberg, international officer at the GMB:
"We completely reject any allegations that what we’re saying is unsubstantiated," he told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"We are directly contacted by our colleagues and unions in Costa Rica and Honduras; this isn’t second-hand information...these aren't people who just make allegations for the sake of it."
The following is what Schouwenburg has been told by his counterparts in Honduras:
"Mainly women workers at the Honduran plantation have been denied their rights in terms of extra pay on Sunday, overtime, they’ve formed a union," Scouwenburg alleged.
"As soon as they formed a union, the executive committee was taken away by the head of security who is ex-army personnel, locked up for a day, threatened, and they eventually came out and denounced their union tickets, said they were too frightened to get involved again. That didn’t just happen once, that happened twice," he alleged.
Whether these allegations are substantiated or not, it gives us purpose to think about all the women who grow our food, and the hardships they can sometimes endure in any part of the world.
As a man it's a bit awkward writing about women's issues here, but from what I see a lot of the International Women's Day coverage puts community leaders, business owners or executives, celebrities and politicians at the forefront. However, strong women at the bottom of the ladder in far-flung countries also contribute greatly to our lives - it can be as simple having picked or packed the fruit on your kitchen table.
This column is about giving them recognition, and it's a call for all companies to intensify their efforts and communications about corporate social responsibility and protecting women who do not have the same opportunities as their counterparts in the Western world or in more developed regions.
Now, to continue with the Fyffes issue. As a result of these allegations, the GMB has called for the ETI to kick the multinational out of its ranks. This was the response from ETI spokeswoman Jane Moyo:
"Obviously the allegations of abuse of workers’ rights in Honduras and Costa Rica are very serious as is the allegation of Honduran female workers being locked up by security on a Fyffes plantation," Moyo said.
"As our press release of 12 February explains, we accept that this is a region at great risk of worker rights violations, that we always follow up any complaints and allegations when they are put to us, and that we follow a set procedure when this happens to ensure that issues are dealt with properly."
She said ETI members had a formal review process for complaints when allegations of worker rights breaches occurred, in order to "promote resolution, undertake independent investigation and ultimately, if required, take action against a member".
"This process has not been requested to us at this time, although this week we have received a report from a Honduran trade union about practices on farms that supply Fyffes that we are currently reviewing," Moyo said last week.
ETI was unable to provide this report for confidentiality reasons, but at www.freshfruitportal.com we obtained a letter from Honduras-based union STAS president Tomas Membreño addressed to Fyffes head of corporate social responsibility Hugh Hays on March 2.
"As Mr. Hays can see, the labor situation of workers at the melon farms of the company SURAGROH are getting worse every day. There is fear amongst workers and mainly amongst those who are part of the STATS Board, facing the threats and insecurity that exist in these workplaces," Membreño alleged.
"We believe that Fyffes, in the context of ensuring labor rights, national law, international agreements and the standards of the ETI are respected, should start a process of investigation into these complaints, so that our organizations feel the confidence to assure that Fyffes is a company that monitors and enforces labor laws in countries where it has commercial operations."
So how likely is it that the ETI, which has given members the boot in the past, will take a tougher stance with Fyffes? Schouwenberg does not seem to think the chances are so great.
"I think the ethical trading initiative is little more than a front for corporations to make themselves feel better," he said.
"I’ve been in this business quite a long time, I know the players in the tropical fruit industry in Latin America, and four years ago the Ethical Trading Initiative approached me – they do a series of reviews of their members and Fyffes is one of them.
"When Fyffes found out it was going to be me that was accompanying the Ethical Trade Initiative on their review of the company, I was stopped from going in – they said it’s not appropriate, conflict of interest, Bert Schouwenberg can’t come," he claimed
I have seen emails that corroborate Schouwenberg's claim about his interactions with the ETI in 2012, but the ETI would not give a definitive response as to why it discontinued discussions with him on the offer.
"Sometimes conflicts of interest do arise, particularly if companies, unions or NGOs are involved in a dispute and then provision exists to change a team member with the agreement of the NGO or Trade Union Caucus leader," Moyo said.
"Additionally, you may find it useful to know that we have on our board, as members of our management committee, the TUC, the ITUC and two other global trade unions so we believe that this validates ETI’s independent status, which I gather is Bert’s main concern."
So there you have it. Four people entitled to their opinions, and a company - Europe's leading importer of bananas and the biggest melon shipper to the U.S. - entitled to its silence.
Lead photo: www.shutterstock.com