Del Monte backs down
PANAMA. The multinational company Del Monte has withdrawn its offer to lease the lands of the Puerto Armuelles Multiple Services Cooper...
PANAMA. The multinational company Del Monte has withdrawn its offer to lease the lands of the Puerto Armuelles Multiple Services Cooperative (Coosemupar), leaving the future of the country’s largest banana producer and exporter on the Pacific coast, with 2,800 workers, once again up in the air.
Del Monte’s withdrawal was confirmed by Panama’s Minister of Agricultural Development (MIDA), Olmedo Espino.
The company was ready to pay $54 million to lease 3,000 hectares of plantations for a period of 25 years. Last week, they met with the Panamanian Autonomous Cooperative Institute (IPACOOP) to start defining the terms of the agreement, but no worker representatives were present.
The general secretary of the workers union of Coosemupar, Simon Lezcano, said earlier that only one representative had been invited to the meeting who would be “without voice and without voting rights,” so they opted not to attend.
Coosemupar workers then took over the streets, closing the road on the Costa Rica-Panama border, in what they claimed was a defense of their labor rights, to demand their participation in the negotiations between the multinational and the Panamanian Autonomous Cooperative Institute (IPACOOP).
Espino lamented Del Monte’s withdrawal and said they were dealing with a serious company that seeing the attitude taken by the workers, preferred not to get involved.
“A great opportunity was missed,” he said.
After Del Monte’s decision Espino called upon the workers to open the road, saying there was no reason to keep blocking the border and hampering commerce with the rest of Central America seeing as there was no negotiation taking place. Workers responded to the call.
In a Friday meeting between MIDA, IPACOOP, the workers’ union and the Baru legislator, Osman Gomez, the workers’ leaders expressed their discontent with any move to lease Coosemupar lands, instead asking the government to give them $25 million to revive production in the plantations, which are currently not receiving either fertilizer or treatment against black sigatoka (a leaf spot disease of banana plants).
Espino did not want to speculate on the future of Coosemupar, an entity which is for all intents and purposes bankrupt, but said that it will be an issue to be dealt with by the new government authorities in the transition period.
Coosemupar has been subsidized by the Panamanian government since 2008. It maintains a debt of over $35 million, which includes a $20 million loan by the National Bank of Panama (BNP) and $11 million owed the Social Security. If the workers demands are met by the new government, Coosemupar would owe $25 million more in debt.
During the meeting, Espino said the government would continue paying workers’ salaries during May and June.
Production and exports have been stalled for over six months and losses are estimated to be over $20 million.
Workers are only engaged in cleaning, since there is nothing with which to treat the plantations. Most of the workers have no work to do and spend their time playing domino or retiring to their homes.
Lezcano has repeatedly said no agreement can be reached with any company before defining the future of the 2,800 plantation workers.
Without a leasing agreement, which Del Monte’s offer withdrawal proves to be almost impossible given swift union uprisings, the only options left are infusing more government money or liquidating the enterprise.