Below are some examples of labour rights problems and environmental damage in the banana industry, which are typical throughout tropical fruit production.
What conditions do the workers that grow and harvest our bananas experience?
Workers on banana plantations in some countries such as the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica are migrants whose labour and other social rights are given little, if any, respect. Many workers are also hired through subcontractors, making the workforce cheaper, more flexible and much harder to organise into trade unions.
Women workers are particularly vulnerable. They often work for 14 hours a day without overtime pay, without the freedom to organise and without their rights being respected. Women are sacked for being pregnant, have no ante- or post-natal maternity rights, and many suffer sexual harassment in the workplace. Women workers in countries such as Ecuador and Costa Rica can represent as few as 13% of the workforce, as employers increasingly view women as ‘high cost, high risk’ employees.
Trade union membership is low in some banana exporting countries due to the widespread anti-union tactics used by national and multinational banana companies. In Guatemala, banana workers face some of the worst conditions, and trade union activists regularly suffer discrimination, violence, and even assassination. In Costa Rica, the banana companies use ‘Solidarismo’ as a substitute for independent trade unions, undermining the efforts of legitimate trade unions.
Across the industry, national and international labour laws – such as the right to join an independent trade union – are regularly violated, despite their ratification by producing country governments. In recent years there has been a move towards the privatisation of labour standards through the certification of banana plantations.
However, if any real improvements are to be seen on the ground, workers must first be ensured the freedom to organise into trade unions, providing the capacity to improve their own working conditions through collective bargaining and the subsequent implementation of their basic labour rights.
Banana production can be a real disaster for the natural environment – do you know why?
Most bananas exported to Europe are grown on large-scale plantations in Latin America, and increasingly, in Africa. Intensive methods of production maximise productivity but cause serious environmental damage including:
Banana plantations are monocultures – where only one type of crop is grown. Around 97% of internationally traded bananas come from one single variety, the Cavendish. This lack of genetic variety makes plants highly susceptible to pests, fungi and diseases and therefore large quantities of insecticides and other pesticides are applied to the crops. As the pests and diseases adapt, ever stronger, more harmful pesticides need to be applied. Most plantation owners will spend more money on agrochemicals than on their workforce. Fertilisers and pesticides pollute water channels resulting in fish kills and the destruction of other aquatic life including coral reefs. Carelessly stored chemicals seep into the soil and water courses, then this polluted water is used for drinking, cooking and washing.
Likewise, pineapple production is characterised by large scale, monoculture plantations owned by a small number of national and multinational fruit companies. Growers use 10 or 15 times more herbicides on pineapples than on other crops. The application of toxic pesticides is especially tragic in a rainforest area, where heavy rains wash the poisons into nearby water sources, contaminating a community water source not 100 meters from the plantation.
Agrochemicals are applied by hand and aerially sprayed. It is estimated that 85% of chemicals sprayed by plane fail to land on the crop, instead saturating the whole area, including workers, their homes and food. Laws prohibiting workers from being in the fields when spraying takes place are routinely violated. For plantation workers and local people, the health impacts of extensive agrochemical use are numerous and well-documented, ranging from depression and respiratory problems to cancer, miscarriages and birth defects.