[Documents menu] Documents menu

The fruits of anger: Banana Workers' Restriction

By André Linard, ICFTU OnLine, 106/980504/AL, 4 May 1998

The International union of food and agricultural workers (IUF) is organising an international banana conference in Brussels on May 4-6. The conference's purpose is to promote a charter which would include workers' rights in plantations and the access of small producers to international markets. On this occasion, ICFTU OnLine is publishing a series of articles on the social aspects of the international fruit trade and on working conditions in the plantations.

The World Trade Organisation's ruling against the European banana market is a defeat for workers.

Brussels, May 4 1998 (ICFTU OnLine): Divide and conquer has always been the strong man's tactic. By trying to set the banana workers of Latin America against their counterparts in other continents, banana producers are relentlessly pursuing their own interests. In fact the WTO's ruling against the European banana market is a defeat for banana workers worldwide.

It is not a defeat because of the priority being given to the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (the ACP countries)¯after all, Latin America, too, suffered from closures and job losses when the European Union set its quotas. In 1993 the Union of Banana Exporting Countries (in Latin America) estimated that 174,000 jobs would be lost on the continent as a result of the EU's system of preferences. Meanwhile, the European Association of Banana Producers represents 160,000 direct jobs and 50,000 smallholdings that rely on the fruit in Europe and the ACP. Indeed, many people in the ACP countries were quick to ask Europe to resist the ruling.

Worse still for women

As things stand the workers are losing out first and foremost because the WTO is putting economic reasoning before any other consideration. As long ago as 1995 Gilberto Bermúdez, president of the Latin American Banana Workers' Committee explained: Neither the multinational corporations nor the governments want to discuss social clauses, and the WTO is just not interested.

The workers are also losing out because the WTO is rubberstamping the exploitation of labour and the natural environment. Latin American bananas are cheaper because the plantations are more efficient and the workers are more exploited, being paid one half to one sixth the wages of their ACP counterparts.

In Martinique and Guadeloupe, which benefit from French social protection, labour costs account for 38 per cent of banana prices¯much more than in Latin America. Euroban (the network of European NGOs and producers' organisations) notes how, in the plantations run by major companies there are problems with payment, daily contracts, working time, leave, safety at the workplace, housing and so on. And these problems are even worse for women.

By finding against Europe and in favour of the view propounded by the multinationals, the WTO's ruling is tantamount to saying that the markets need take no account of working conditions.

This does not alter the fact that the working conditions on banana plantations are rarely good. Moreover, we must not be deceived into thinking that because most of the complaints and the reports of the worst conditions are coming out of Latin America, that there are no problems anywhere else. Working conditions are of greater concern than wage levels.

Workers are exposed as a matter of course to the chemicals used in the plantations. In Central America these chemicals are often sprayed from the air while the workers are still on the job. Doris Calvo used to work on a plantation but today she runs the women's campaign for the SITRAP union in Costa Rica. The chemicals used to cause sickness.

They are sprayed by aircraft and come into contact with workers' skin. They are breathed in and cause foot and kidney infections and can sometimes lead to miscarriages. DBCP, one of the chemicals used, can causes sterility or genetic mutation when a pregnant woman comes into contact with it. It is banned in the United States.

Solidarity unions

Carlos Mora knows of these problems first hand. Now aged 47, he was rendered sterile along with, he claims, thousands of his co-workers. He also reports that DBCP has already killed 28 people in Costa Rica, and there are numerous instances of poisoning. The unions have prosecuted the plantation owners in the United States, where they have their headquarters. Carlos was awarded $7,500 in compensation, which barely covered nine days of medical treatment in Costa Rica. According to the World Development Movement, an organisation that challenges the power of multinationals, some 16,000 banana workers from 12 countries have filed lawsuits in the American courts against companies that use DBCP.

Banana plantation workers¯in particular in Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala¯also find themselves directly confronted by the blackleg solidarity unions - run by the employers - and by anti-union feeling in general. Doris Calvo started work at the age of 13 and when she joined a union shortly afterwards she tried to encourage her colleagues to do likewise. When her employer came to hear of this she was fired and her name put on a blacklist. She was then refused work in other plantations. Her son was also sacked.

Changing the image or the reality?

The Costa Rican government and the plantation owners have decided to run a campaign aimed at discrediting complaints about the threat to social rights and the environment. Jorge Sauma, president of the National Banana Association, said that local wages are considerably higher than those paid in other countries, such as Guatemala and Ecuador. That is true, but then the cost of living is also considerably higher in Costa Rica. In November and December 1997, thousands of Costa Rican plantation workers erected barricades on the San Jose-Limón road in protest at payment delays.

Although the WTO may not feel that these environmental and social aspects need to be taken into account for market organisation, they are nonetheless leading criteria for establishing so-called fair trade. This type of trade does not pit the workers from one continent against the workers of another, but sets the respect for the rights of these workers against pure market economics, while aiming¯paradoxically¯for this change to be brought about by the market itself. But that is another topic altogether.