A company that has been operating in Belize for more than two decades has announced that it will be shutting down business for good. On Tuesday we reported that 38 employees had been laid off last week Friday from both Fruta Bomba and Belize Fruit Packers. On Tuesday, CEO of Brooks Tropicals, the parent company of Fruta Bomba and Belize Fruit Packers, which is located in Florida, USA, told Love News quote, “To stay a viable producer and for our survival we have been required to downsize and reduce expenses, these include labor…. We are still committed to growing in Belize fewer acres”, end quote. That was two days ago and something changed their position drastically because Brooks Tropicals announced this morning that it is shutting down Fruta Bomba and Belize Fruit Packers and all its operations in Belize permanently. Two hundred and fifty one employees will be laid off in the next three to six months. Today CEO Greg Smith sent out a release in which he says quote “After 22 years of operating in the Central American country of Belize, Brooks Tropical has found it necessary to close its growing and packing operations there. The company’s subsidiaries, Belize Fruit Packers and Fruta Bomba will operate up to an additional six months. Current employee levels to meet those needs are being evaluated. All employees should continue to work their normal schedule determined by their manager until further notice” end of quote. Smith explained that economic conditions particularly after Hurricane Dean in 2007 had hindered the company substantially from rebuilding into a profitable operation. He says quote, “Efforts over the last three years to build and maintain efficient growing and packing operations in Belize have not been successful and as a result we had incurred substantial annual loss in Belize that the company can no longer sustain” end of quote. We spoke to CEO in the Ministry of Agriculture, Jose Alpchue who told us the collapse of these two entities represents the total wipeout of the papaya industry in Belize.
“At the moment they are the single largest exporter. We’ve had other exporters attempting to get into the market but it’s not an easy market to enter into and to maintain exports. Quiet frankly for papaya production it represents almost a total loss.”
“When they go in the next three to six months that Belize won’t be exporting any papayas?”
“Well yes unless we can find a buyer who is prepared to buy the operations and continue with it. This company is fully privately owned by Brooks Tropical so it would have to be a sale between them and any other private sector investor. I will say that this is one of the things that we will have to actively pursue but it’s only 48 hours that we got the notice and we are looking at all options right now.”
“At any point in time since the 2007 Dean hurricane or maybe up to recently were you approached by officials from these two companies or from the parent company in Florida asking for assistance in any sort of way to try to help them sustain their position in the papaya industry?”
“These companies enjoys EPZ status and another one enjoys fiscal incentive and I believe tax incentive was only recently renewed so they were already enjoying the package of concession that companies are usually afforded in Belize so there was not a whole lot more that could have been granted to them as a concession to have them remain in Belize. Unfortunately the way it is right now the entity almost equals the industry. I don’t believe the entity’s operation in Belize can be saved simply because they’ve said to us that they have been sourcing fruit from Guatemala and have been sorting and investing in the Dominican Republic. There are some fundamentals to which we can’t do much, one of the principal of them being cost of labor. From the information we have the cost of labor in the Dominican Republic is somewhere .33 US cents an hour, here in Belize it’s $1.65 US an hour. That in and of itself is a fundamental issue.”
While Alpuche and his teams are figuring out how they can save the industry, the two hundred and fifty employees that will no longer have a job are figuring out their next move. In fact some of the employees who have been working at Fruta Bomba and Belize Fruit Packers for more than five years have expressed concerns that they might not receive what is due to them financially. CEO Alpuche assured that Government agencies are working along with the companies to ensure that the employees receive their fair compensation for all their years of service.
“Two days ago on the 9th of February we were informed verbally by the CEO of the company that they had taken this decision and that it would be a period of three to six months in which they would wind down operations in Belize. The discussions we’ve had is that we will try to make the transition as smooth as possible from a government perspective. Our primary concern at this point in time is to ensure that the employees and anybody else to which the company has a liability to in Belize are paid properly before the wind down is completed. Of course the government regrets the fact that an investor such as Brooks Tropical is withdrawing. We are extremely concerned about the loss of livelihoods for 250 workers and although it’s early we are already forming teams to deal with the issue to see whether there is any possibility to continue papaya production, albeit a different entity but also to try and see what can be done with the workers as this winding down of Fruta Bomba takes place.”
In its release, Brooks Tropical asserted that quote, “All wages due employees base on Belize labor laws will be paid at the time when the employees are laid off”, end of quote.