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Financial Times

Fruit groups attacked over workers' rights. Apr 25, 2002. By Nicholas Moss.

The US's big fruit companies and exporters will come under fire today from the country's largest human rights organisation.

Chiquita Brands, Del Monte Fresh Produce and Dole Food are blamed for the abuse of plantation workers because of their failure to demand respect for labour rights by their Ecuadorean banana suppliers.

Along with Noboa, owned by Alvaro Noboa, a candidate in Ecuadorean presidential elections, and Ecuadorean-owned Favorita Fruit, they dominate the world trade in bananas.

The five companies are accused by Human Rights Watch (HRW) of selling bananas from suppliers who employ children and routinely flout worker health and safety considerations.

Its report, Tainted Harvest: Child Labour and Obstacles to Organising on Ecuador's Banana Plantations, documents the labour abuses in Ecuador, the world's largest banana-exporting country.

Ecuador's biggest customer is the US, although the Andean nation has been lobbying for greater access to European markets.

"Children as young as eight work long hours in extremely hazardous conditions and adults fear being fired if they try to organise," the report says.

The Ecuadorean government's own controls are limited. It employs just 13 labour inspectors along its entire coastal region. The maximum fine for violating child labour laws is Dollars 200.

Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole, the world's biggest banana companies, are among those accused of "facilitating abuses by failing to demand respect for labour rights on their suppliers' plantations".

The three US companies said they complied with Ecuadorean law, monitored labour conditions and would allow freedom of association on their directly-owned plantations. However, only Dole has its own small plantation in Ecuador, while Chiquita and Del Monte exclusively use third-party suppliers.

HRW wants public pressure to convince Del Monte, Dole and Chiquita to ensure and monitor labour rights practices throughout their supply chains.

It also wants to put pressure on Ecuador's labour minister to enforce and improve existing legislation.