'Undercover Boss': Chiquita's 'Top Banana Doesn't Peel Back Enough Layers

Undercover Boss
Undercover Boss

The plight of America's underpaid, overworked laborers is a recurring theme on Undercover Boss, but Sunday's episode of the popular CBS (CBS) show will take the issue to a whole new level. Shadowing Chiquita Brand International's (CQB) CEO Fernando Aguirre, the popular program will give viewers -- and Aguirre -- a ground-level look at the lives of some of the country's undocumented Mexican agricultural workers.

Picking lettuce in Salinas, California, Aguirre posed as "Manuel," an immigrant worker. Speaking of the experience, he noted that "If I'd known how grueling coring lettuce was I probably would have tried to lose some weight and get in better shape." Yet he also argued that complaints about his company's use of illegal immigrants are unfair: "Clearly not everyone wants to be out at four or five in the morning in the fields, bending over picking lettuce and doing all that physical labor. At Chiquita, we pay competitive wages and are very pro-union ... but there still aren't enough people out there who want to take those jobs."

A CEO's Impressive Work Ethic

Aguirre immigrated to the U.S. at the age of seventeen, and he enjoyed interacting with Mexican migrant workers: "Clearly, the family values and work values are there, and we really can connect on that level ... It was really natural to speak Spanish and talk about families back in Mexico." Apart from his field work, Aguirre also drove a forklift and processed some produce. He even got involved with the company's trademark product, scheduling banana shipments into the U.S.

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While Aguirre's ability to bond with his workers is impressive, this Undercover Boss episode has a fairly large hole in its narrative. Chiquita is most famous for its tropical produce, which is largely grown outside of the U.S. However, the show doesn't feature any of the Latin American plantations where its farmers cultivate bananas, pineapples, and other popular fruits.

A Different Story South of the Border

While Chiquita is a respected, familiar brand in the U.S., its reputation in Latin America is fraught with scandal and bad blood. In its original incarnation as the United Fruit Company, the company supported dictatorships in Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras, Costa Rica and Chile. More recently, it came under attack for helping to finance AUC, FARC and ELN, a trio of Colombian terrorist and paramilitary groups. Found guilty of giving $1.7 million to AUC in 2007, Chiquita paid a $25 million fine to the U.S. government. Government officials in Colombia asked the U.S. to extradite some of Chiquita's execs so that they could stand trial in the country, but the request was denied.

In recent years, Chiquita has worked to clean up its act: once attacked for union-breaking, using toxic pesticides, dodging taxes, and oppressing workers, the company was sued by some of its shareholders for gross mismanagement. Since then, Chiquita has vastly improved its environmental record, but it is still cited for abuses against workers in Guatemala and Costa Rica.

One thing is for certain: while being an agricultural worker for Chiquita may not pay well, running the company is quite lucrative. Aguirre, who has headed Chiquita since 2004, currently brings home more than $7.6 million per year.

Undercover Boss will air on Sunday, October 31 at 9:00 PM on CBS.

Also See:Undercover Boss Fernando Aguirre: 5 Quick Questions