Subsidiary companies of Irish fruit business Fyffes have been accused of a range of labour rights violations in Honduras and Costa Rica. According to a report in the Guardian, the trade union GMB has alleged that Fyffes subsidiary companies have fallen short when it comes to pay and conditions, health and safety, and trade union membership:
In one case, 14 workers on a melon plantation, which is 60%-owned by Fyffes’ subsidiary Suragroh were allegedly hospitalised after being poisoned by noxious chemicals.
The GMB said the female workers had not been given safety gear to protect them while handling fruit. It said workers had also reported that they were not being paid the minimum wage, were denied extra pay for overtime and Sundays and were not given public holidays.
The GMB, which received the allegations from local trade union partners, said workers were also illegally charged for transport to the fields where they work.
When they tried to form a trade union branch in January 2016, the GMB said, four members were abducted, threatened and held for 24 hours until they renounced membership.
Fyffes is one of the largest fruit importation companies in the world (recently purchased by Japanese group Sumitomo), and has its head offices in Dublin. Its website extolls its commitment to doing business responsibly, conceding that “although we’re not perfect, we are working hard to do it right”. In relation to these particular claims, Fyffes has said that “it provides all necessary safety equipment and refutes claims that it fails to pay workers the minimum wage, noting that an inspection of the 2013-15 payrolls by the Honduran labour ministry found all wages and supplements were in line with national laws”.
According to the Guardian, “Workers argue that the authorities are anxious to please the company, and that officials who take their side are punished”. Bert Schouwenburg, an international officer for the trade union GMB, didn’t mince his words when it put it that “Fyffes is an appalling employer that cares nothing for its workers who toil in boiling heat to produce the fruit that makes the company’s profit. They have no respect for domestic or international law governing workers’ rights and must be brought to book.”
Such serious allegations have prompted calls that Fyffes to be expelled from the Ethical Trading Initiative. In relation to the allegations against Fyffes, the Ethical Trading Initiative “upheld key aspects of the complaint, deeming them substantive and robust”.
The allegations have received some attention in the Irish media, in part because of a recent protest at a company meeting called to vote on the purchase of the company for €751m by Japanese groups Sumitomo Corporation. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has also been active on calling for Fyffes to respect labour rights in its activities overseas.
A campaign “Make Fruit Fair” has recently been started and workers in Central America have called for boycotts of Fyffes products by European consumers until such time as conditions are improved and collective bargaining recognised. The question also arises as to whether the company might be liable in the Irish courts for the actions of its subsidiaries. The avenues and barriers to pursuing litigation as a business and human remedy will be explored at the forthcoming conference at NUI Galway organised by the Irish Centre for Human Rights.