Costa Rica – Record banana exports: The role of the workers

Costa Rica – Record banana exports: The role of the workers

Albino Vargas

986 million dollars! Yes, that’s right! Dollars! Converting it into colones, using the current exchange rate of around 566 colones to the dollar, gives us the gigantic sum of 558.076 billion colones! Or, expressed in figures: 558,076,000,000.

This massive figure amounts to almost two percentage points of the country’s current Gross Domestic Product (GDP) if we take each GDP percentage point to be around 300 billion colones (300,000,000,000).

Great! But what do these numbers actually refer to? This huge amount of money, according to data supplied by the National Banana Corporation (Corbana), the non-state public body responsible for promoting Costa Rica’s banana sector, is the total revenue from the country’s banana exports in 2016.

Reporting these figures on 11 January this year, the morning newspaper, La Nación, pointed out that around 43,000 people are directly employed in the industry, with the vast majority working in the plantation fields. These employees, selling their labour and working from dawn to dusk, are the ones who create this enormous capital growth of over 558 billion colones.

Simple arithmetic – albeit, we admit, lacking in scientific rigour – allows us to gauge the impact of the labour provided by each one of these 43,000 people who are directly employed in the country’s banana production, revealing that their labour creates almost 13m colones per capita.

Of course, the fact that there are a range of factors involved in this production process means that this very high banana productivity is down to a combination of factors within a comprehensive strategy but the part played by banana workers is still absolutely crucial.

These men and women employed on the banana plantations are workers in the classical meaning of the ‘worker’ concept in the legal, sociological, economic and, of course, ideological senses of the term and they demand full and comprehensive recognition.

Such vindication would enable them to link their strategic role in selling their labour to generate billions in revenue with their urgent need for full access to the provisions laid down in the International Labour Organization’s Decent Work policy, which has already been adopted as state policy in Costa Rica.

At the same time, they need to ensure that their labour gives them an integrated concept of coverage under universally recognised Human Rights principles and that they enjoy essential legal protection, without pressure or repression, through the only legitimate means of doing so, namely a trade union.

The huge revenues from the current banana production in Costa Rica, which, we reiterate, accounts for almost two GDP points, comes from the cantons of Sarapiquí, Siquirres, Guácimo, Matina, Limón, Talamanca, Parrita, Corredores and Palmar Sur.

In almost all these areas, union activists and militants are engaged in a tough and systematic fight on a daily basis to ensure that these men and women workers in the banana industry have their condition as workers fully respected. Their battles, backed by their various member organisations, can be seen as heroic when you consider the difficult situations they operate in, especially when compared with what their counterparts in the public sector have to contend with.

The trade union movement in the Costa Rican banana industry, with its highs and lows throughout the decades, has an honoured place in the country’s social and labour history. Many lives have been sacrificed and there have been countless cases of unspeakable suffering, exclusions, harassment, indignities and abuses and yet the trade union movement in the banana industry is still alive and well!

The 2016 record year for Costa Rican banana exports signals the extraordinary opportunity that exists for the movement’s empowerment in today’s new socio-historical situation. And a significant number of union members, along with their leaders and officials, have already begun that journey.