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The Switzerland-based International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations  (IUF) has warned that the banana barons of Ecuador are able to commit crimes against their workers with impunity.

Throughout Ecuador, the world's leading banana exporter, workers on banana plantations are subjected to "appalling social conditions… established over decades of repression", said IUF.

Furthermore, only a handful of the industry's 300,000 employees are currently able to exercise their basic right to freedom to join a trade association, following what the IUF calls a "policy of systematic union-busting".

Despite this, however, Ecuador's workers are now challenging company and government repression on the plantations, with the biggest upsurge in union activity in decades focused on the Noboa Corporation, the fourth largest banana company in the world.

The IUF warns that they often face extreme violence, and has slammed a "complicit government" for being unwilling to take elementary measures to defend its citizens.

Since February, some 1,400 workers on seven Noboa plantations have demanded overtime pay, health care benefits and medical centres, decent wages, and union recognition, specifically the right to affiliate to FENACLE, the union federation seeking to organise the plantations. In response to the strike, 124 union supporters were fired and hundreds of workers on short-term contracts were not called back to work.

Early on 16 May, some 400 hooded men, some of them armed with automatic weapons, assaulted workers on strike on the Los Alamos plantations owned by Noboa. The gunmen fired on the striking workers, sending some to the hospital with multiple gunshot wounds. One worker had his leg amputated as a result.

Company head Alvaro Noboa, who is favoured to be Ecuador's next president in the forthcoming elections, has admitted to government officials that the armed strikebreakers are in his employ. At a press conference last week, however, Noboa sidestepped questions about organised violence against his workers, insisting that any problems are caused by politicians "who continuously invade my plantations."

Meanwhile, workers at the Danish-owned Rio Culebra plantation, which sells to the transnational Dole, walked off the job in mid-April, seeking union recognition, decent wages and working conditions, and access to health care. They too have been attacked by armed gangs in the pay of the employers, says IUF.

At a meeting on 21 May, Labour Minister Martín Insua told a US consular representative that he was powerless to act against powerful banana barons: "No one on the ground here is empowered to make a decision."

The IUF claims these companies have built their business in Ecuador "by profiting from repression", adding "action is needed now if further violence against the workers is to be avoided and guarantees are implemented for them to exercise basic human rights."

IUF is now helping to coordinate international union action to support Ecuador's banana workers, and added: "We will be calling on retailers to review their sources for bananas from Ecuador."