3 Feb 2020

Enabling local solutions to workplace disputes

Effective labour relations in Peru’s banana sector

Relations between management and labour can come with friction, regardless of the industry. But in the banana growing region of Peru the conflict used to be constant. Working together with trade union and producer representatives, a labour rights NGO and a local labour expert, Fairtrade was able to find lasting solutions. The resulting framework for social dialogue has improved relations between farm workers, their union and Fairtrade cooperatives, and can be a model for locally led conflict resolution elsewhere.

By Wilbert Flinterman, Fairtrade International’s Senior Advisor for Workers’ Rights and Trade Union Relations

DSC04404 870
Members of the Banana Roundtable in Northern Peru, with representatives of producers and labour

Peru has become one of the world’s biggest fruit exporters, with more than 800,000 workers in the sector. However, this boom is based on special legislation that denies agricultural workers many basic labour rights. They are paid less than workers in other sectors, and receive lower bonuses, fewer holidays and lower health care contributions.

This ‘special arrangement’ (recently extended until 2031), also affected Fairtrade banana cooperatives and associations in Northern Peru. Although their members are small-scale farmers, often with a hectare or less of banana plants, the producer organizations employ workers to harvest, clean and pack the bananas. These workers are often unionized and for several years, disputes over topics such as pay, contracts and trade union rights were commonplace. The cooperatives’ general lack of experience in hiring and managing workers, and in resolving labour disputes exacerbated the situation. The result was a highly tense and conflictual relationship between banana farmers and workers. Moreover, there was a major lack of trust and collaboration between the Peruvian Agricultural Workers' Union (SITAG) and Fairtrade certified producer organizations. It was hard to see a way out of the conflict.

Finding local and sustainable solutions

Wherever there are obstacles to good labour relations, Fairtrade wants to help remove them, working in partnership with producer organizations, local unions, and labour experts. We strongly believe that local problems should be solved through local dialogue, to ensure lasting change and impact.

After exploring different avenues, and engaging the support of Ecuadorian labour expert Julia Malquin, we concluded that the only sustainable solution was to establish a permanent platform for dialogue, grievances and conflict resolution in the region. A roundtable, run by the farmers’ organizations and the union themselves.

Over the next few years this idea would come to have a lasting impact on worker-employer relations in the region. But what was a good idea in theory, needed local leadership to make it work in practice. Two men, and their personal commitment to work together on building labour peace between their constituents, played an instrumental role.

One was Luis (Lucho) Suarez, Executive Secretary of Peru’s national network of Fairtrade producers, CNCJ-PERU. Previously a representative for a public sector union, Suarez was particularly well suited for re-establishing dialogue with the union. During a meeting with myself, Julia Malquín, CNCJ-PERU and farmer representatives, the producers nominated Suarez for this task.

The second was Gilbert Bermudez, coordinator of the Latin American Coordinating Body of Banana and Agro-industrial Workers’ Unions (COLSIBA), of which the Peruvian union SITAG is a member. The producers had recognised that working closely with this umbrella organization was crucial for establishing a successful dialogue.

Lucho Suarez recalls their first meeting well. “Gilbert and I pledged our commitment to address this conflict. Gilbert was key in requesting the labour union in Peru (SITAG) be open for a dialogue process with the cooperatives. As for me, I visited the coops to encourage their members to engage with the project.”

Collaboration is key

While the two men worked to gain support for the dialogue project, Fairtrade supported the formation process with financial resources and training. We worked with Julia Malquín to establish a training programme in human resources management and dispute resolution, tailored to the needs of the banana associations and cooperatives. She also led and coordinated implementation of the dialogue framework.

Several others played a key role in the efforts to resolve the dispute, such as Juan Herrera, Secretary General of SITAG and Alistair Smith, International Coordinator at Banana Link, a UK-based NGO advocating for labour rights in the banana industry. Well connected to COLSIBA and its members and to Fairtrade International as member of its Workers’ Rights Advisory Committee, Alistair supported the process as intermediary and conciliator.

Stronger worker-employer relations, improved conflict resolution

In 2014, all these efforts began to bear fruit. An assembly of almost 100 representatives of workers and producers decided to establish a roundtable for dispute resolution, comprising of four parties: Fairtrade International; CNCJ-PERU, representing the Fairtrade cooperatives; COLSIBA, the umbrella trade union and its Peruvian member, SITAG.

Since then, the relationship between workers and employers has improved considerably. The roundtable has become a safe space and a vehicle for conflict resolution, thanks to its strong dialogue structure, training and the willingness of everyone involved.

"The roundtable has opened the way for workers and employers, in collaboration with SITAG, to communicate with one another,” says Oscar Calle, Deputy Secretary General, SITAG. “Some cooperatives have signed collective agreements. Others have made progress in other areas, for example in worker registration, and they are offering greater benefits. We hope that more progress will be made for the benefit of workers.”

Milton Gonzaga agrees. As president of Fairtrade certified banana association BOS, Gonzaga is a producer representative at the roundtable. “I remember from my own experience that there were many problems in the past. Now I can see that the worker-producer and worker-manager relationship has greatly improved in the last four years, and this has contributed to improving production.”

How the roundtable works in practice

A Framework Agreement, adopted by ten producer organizations, defined the principles of the Roundtable. It is based on a layered model of decision-making between producers and workers:

An Operational Committee oversees the dialogue process, made up of Fairtrade, SITAG, COLSIBA, CNCJ-PERU and two representatives from small producer organizations.

A matter is first discussed at organization-level between an association or cooperative and its trade union committee. If not resolved, the case is brought to the members of the Operational Committee. If the matter still cannot be settled, the case is referred to the Roundtable Assembly. Beyond that level, the case can be passed to other legal mechanisms or international initiatives. However, it is testimony to the roundtable’s success that every case so far has been resolved either at organizational level or at the Operational Committee.

Going forward – a willingness to keep improving

The Roundtable Assembly wants to continue strengthening their work. Stronger relationships between roundtable members, training modules to improve communication and interpersonal dynamics in meetings, and further regulating of dialogue processes are their current key priorities.

Based on their positive experience, both SITAG and the producer representatives expressed their wish to use the mechanisms for complaint management more consistently. As a result, the Operational Committee will play an even more active role, with meetings to be held on average every month to facilitate dialogue around unresolved issues.

“I think that the roundtable will be a permanent activity as stakeholders fully take over the process,” says Julia Malquín. “This process was initially driven by Fairtrade, but it is now moving forward and managed by the producers themselves, represented by CNCJ-PERU, and the trade union, represented by COLSIBA.”

COLSIBA coordinator Gilbert Bermúdez, confirms this willingness. “We all want to break down the walls between us, and say: let’s talk. There is still much to be done. But we are happy with the process because – and this is the important thing – there is a willingness on both sides to move forward,” he says.

Finally, to round off the process of putting local stakeholders in charge of the process, Fairtrade’s Latin American producer network CLAC has taken on funding of the programme.

Setting a positive example

The experience of the roundtable has been shared in Latin America as well as in Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, and presented at the 2017 World Banana Forum. Banana Link is currently preparing a report which will document the process, challenges and achievements to date, which will be shared at the next World Banana Forum in June. It is mine and Fairtrade’s wish that this experience inspires employer and worker representatives in the banana sector and other industries to improve their labour relations by building trust and strengthening social dialogue.

Wilbert Flinterman is speaking at the OECD on 4 February during the Global Deal Conference, “Social Dialogue for a Better Future of Work”. More information here.

Special thanks go to all the people interviewed and referenced in this piece, as well as Veronica Perez, Global Product Manager, for her contributions.