Iris Munguia started working on a Chiquita banana plantation in her native Honduras when she was 18 years old. She spent the next 23 years in the packing depot: choosing the fruit that was up to standard and packing it for shipping to grocery stores.
“We see that in the banana, melon, and pineapple industries in Honduras, there is a complete lack of respect for workers’ rights, especially when there is no union,” Iris explains. Long hours and wages below the minimum required by law are common in the industry. Large-scale producers may collude with the government, offering price breaks in exchange for lax implementation of international labor standards.
“Around 40% of the profits on bananas are kept by the retailer, while workers receive only 0.7 to 1%. This barely meets the costs of subsistence. It is certainly not a living wage, nor decent work.”
Women face particular challenges in the fields. “When the boss realizes a woman is pregnant, in some cases she is fired,” Iris says. Employers view maternity leave as a burdensome cost and many plantations demonstrate a preference for hiring male workers. Iris reports that “there are many sexual harassment cases.” Progress in addressing this discrimination has been stunted by the fact that women are severely under-represented in unions.
In the early 1990s , Iris participated in a training held by a large union federation in Honduras, aimed at creating a new federation of banana unions. At the time, none of the Honduran banana unions had any women in leadership positions. The federation leaders understood the importance of women workers leading the movement, and they created the post of Secretary of Women as the second-ranking leader of the new banana union coalition. They also built the theme of gender into their core educational activities for both women and men. More than three decades later, she went on to become the first woman coordinator of a regional banana union confederation in Latin American history.
Iris was appointed Coordinator of the Coordinating Body of Latin American Banana and Agro-industrial Unions (COLSIBA, in Spanish initials) in August 2011 . COLSIBA represents trade union federations in eight countries and with a combined affiliation of more than 45,000 workers. She was the first woman to be elected to lead COLSIBA since its founding in 1993. She is also the Women’s Secretary of the Federation of Agricultural Unions in Honduras (FESTAGRO) .
COLSIBA was founded as an answer to the international crisis of the banana market, an industry historically plagued with extremely long working hours, precarious contracts, health and safety hazards, wage theft, lack of social security benefits, and violence against trade unionists. It functions at a regional level in many Latin-American countries that produce and export bananas, pineapples, and sugar, with members in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. It provides training, capacity-building, communication, mobilization, mediation, and solidarity to the 42 affiliated unions it represents. COLSIBA has been globally recognized as one of the most distinguished voices in the region advocating for respect for human rights and union rights.
COLSIBA is especially recognized for leadership development among women workers. It offers trainings directly related to women workers’ concerns, including sessions on self-esteem, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and maternity rights. By encouraging women to run for union office, and pushing for these issues to be regularly included on the unions’ business agenda, it has begun to see real progress in increasing gender equity within unions.
For more than 20 years COLSIBA’s Women’s Committee has developed strategies to address women workers’ concerns on plantations and lift up their roles within their families, communities, and unions.
COLSIBA’s Female Banana Workers’ Regional Agenda was established in 2001 and has been subsequently renewed every two years. Its objectives include, but are not limited to:
- Promoting meetings with business and government to improve working conditions for women under national and international laws;
- Including clauses in collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that cover reproductive health, maternity rights, and other protections for women on plantations. Such clauses have been included in five CBAs in Guatemala, four in Honduras, and one in Colombia; - Encouraging recruitment of women without discrimination on age, health, religion, sexual orientation, cultural background, or level of education, and strengthening dialogue with transnational corporations and domestic producers on the issue of discrimination in employment;
- Supporting the implementation of literacy campaigns;
- Promoting community awareness lectures on domestic violence, self-esteem, sexual and reproductive health, and productive work;
- Developing training processes for health and safety committees that include women’s leadership;
- Promoting strategies for achieving retirement benefits and victim compensation for accidents or occupational diseases on plantations.
In 2001, COLSIBA, the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF), and Chiquita signed a historic international framework agreement that entailed a commitment from Chiquita to respect freedom of association in all of its Latin American banana operations. In 2013, the Women’s Committee added a clause to Chiquita’s Code of Conduct that provided for a zero tolerance for sexual harassment – three cases of sexual assault have since been resolved in favor of women workers.