Generating a climate of cooperation - Banana Trade News Bulletin

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No. 57 | November 2017

Welcome to this pre-World Banana Conference edition of the Bulletin, in which we set out our thoughts on how the banana industry needs to generate a climate of cooperation to tackle the issues we face together, including the threat of TR4, providing decent and safe working conditions on plantations and distributing value fairly along supply chains. 

We also have reports on how small famers in the Philippines are building climate resilience, our own worker empowerment programme in Cameroon and Ghana, building union solidarity in Peru and the impact of the recent Labour Procedures Reform in Costa Rica. 

We hope, like us, you are looking forward to a constructive and fruitful conference in Geneva. 


At first sight, many realities of today’s inter-connected world appear to militate against the generation of a real climate of cooperation amongst the diverse and highly competitive players that make up the global banana industry.
In a world where business sets rules for governments, where private investors sue governments for loss of profits, where basic human and workers’ rights are still violated with impunity, where the climate is hostage to economic interests and where the social and environmental costs of production are charged to future generations, it might seem utopian to believe in cooperation to tackle these issues in a meaningful way.
Eight years ago, however, the World Banana Forum’s founding members believed that such cooperation was not only necessary, but possible. Looking back, those who founded the Forum took a ‘leap of faith’. But with the resources of a few dozen private banana industry stakeholders and some limited resources from a handful of public bodies, the basis for cooperation now exists in the world’s leading fruit trade. This unique climate must be valued above all, if the dessert banana is to have a sustainable future.
Workers, growers of all sizes, traders, retailers, governments, certifiers, scientists and concerned consumers are indeed not just talking with each other - a huge step in itself – but actually working together in a number of seriously challenging areas. We now need to build on that basis and intensify our efforts. In the face of serious challenges to the future of the dessert banana industry, more cooperation is not only necessary, but probably the only survival strategy.
Breaking out of the monoculture model
TR4 seems to have provided the scary reality-check needed to remind us that the $25 billion industry is extremely vulnerable. The very narrow genetic base of the dessert banana trade has been rather a taboo subject for too long. What is certain this time, unlike in the 1960s, when the original Panama disease threatened the (much smaller) global trade, is that there is no magic bullet solution to pull out of the bag, no other variety that can save production and trade, and all those who depend on it.
So, if nobody has either a publicly available or a proprietary varietal solution, and remedies to TR4 are still far from being tried and tested, then should we not be embarking on a different route and benefiting from the growing mood for finding a cooperative solution? Scientists and corporate research units alone are unlikely to find a solution that will allow us to substitute one monoculture for another, especially when consumer taste is factored into the equation, which of course it has to be.
Is it so unthinkable that scientists, fruit companies working with small-scale farmers and field workers themselves, could design a new route together, one whose results can be shared in real time as they are generated?  If the proposal is not so unthinkable, can we not also bring retailers, consumers and governments into such a shared effort?  If none of this is unthinkable, then it would seem sensible to be looking at non-monoculture models of production.
Does the concept of ‘polyculture’ which combines traditional farmer knowledge from across the tropics with modern agroecological principles and practices look so far-fetched and unrealistic?  The emerging ‘network economy’ model, as some recent authors have named the information-rich, peer-to-peer production processes emerging in many sectors, could surely be applied to the question of how to produce 20 million tonnes a year of transportable dessert bananas in a way that reduces environmental impacts manyfold and satisfies consumer taste and demand.
Necessarily, producing large quantities of commercially viable bananas in more diverse agroecosystems brings complexities not just in the field of production management, but also for organising work. But can we afford to write off an idea just because it is complex or very different from the current way of doing things?
For a start, hundreds of small-scale farmers supplying the world market from South America to the Philippines already have some live experiences from which a new systemic vision could be designed. There are also publicly funded scientists who have serious and larger-scale commercial experiences of agroecological production systems in the Caribbean to put into the mix. Add to this the beginnings of genuine interest from big global buyers in having a different banana production story to tell/sell, and we could conclude that we are not starting from scratch.
Smart inter-cropping systems coupled with knowledge-rich biological or low/non-chemical control methods, good soil and water management and the optimisation of the beneficial aspects of on-farm biodiversity are some of the elements that lower-energy-input, but still high-output systems, will likely contain.
Is such a scenario for a well-designed and carefully phased transition to non-monoculture models – plural – really scarier than a TR4-led wipe-out or any other major threat to monoculture? Banana Link believes not, and strongly encourages key players to seize the opportunity at WBF III in Geneva this November.
Many workers, small farmers and scientists are ready to embark on such a transition path in the necessary spirit of cooperation. Are you ready too?

Read more - Dr Iain Farquhar of Banana Link and the WBF Working Group on Sustainable Production Systems and Environmental Impact, outlines the need for both cooperation and a new scientific paradigm in addressing the threat of disease to our bananas.

Achieving Decent and Safe work for men and women
Independently of responses to the proposal above, the present and future working conditions of the several million people whose livelihoods depend upon the global banana export industry matter enormously to the vast majority of stakeholders, and it is significant to note, do so more than they did a decade ago. Although the efforts of the permanent working group on labour/workplace issues were led in the early years of the Forum by worker representatives, especially from Latin America, all three priority issues are now being tackled by a growing diversity of industry players.
Industrial relations in the workplace, occupational health and safety, and gender equity are often tough subjects for those whose resources are called upon to make improvements, but all three sets of issues now enjoy genuine multi-stakeholder attention as we arrive at the third global conference.
The underlying issue of the freedom of workers to create their own independent trade unions, as international law clearly states, remains a sticking-point for some managers, some companies, and even some national industries. However, despite global trends in many sectors, there are a higher proportion of workers covered by collective work agreements with their employers than a decade ago and there are real-life experiences of better transnational industrial relations being built despite the economic – and in some cases cultural – pressures not to do so. A transnational network of trade unions has also been created in the African export industry. Whatever happens to production systems, this evidence of, and increased capacity for, effective social dialogue should be seen as good news for the industry, which has an evident self-interest in stability and job satisfaction.
The work on occupational health and safety has led a dozen or so stakeholders in the Forum, focused on the Ecuadorian and Cameroonian industries, to cooperate in the production of the first-ever banana-specific training manual. In parallel to the work of the Dutch-funded BOHESI programme, trade unions in Latin America, Europe and Central Africa have actively promoted ILO Convention 184 on Health & Safety in Agriculture as a useful framework for improving health and safety policy and practice. New and existing joint committees from Guatemala to Peru have taken part in training workshops, with support from the French government and the trade union confederation CGT. France is committed to ratifying the ILO Convention shortly, the Ecuadorian government has rewritten its legislation, and it is hoped that Latin American governments will start to ratify the Convention in the near future.

On the multiple issues around women’s participation in the industry, there has also been tangible progress. Although it may not be deemed a scientific indicator in itself, the fact that the gender equity conference in preparation for WBF III is heavily oversubscribed is testimony to changing attitudes in the banana world. A zero-sexual harassment policy in one big international company, increasing women’s employment and the first-ever crèche facilities in Africa’s biggest banana employer, and a commitment to employ more women in Latin America’s least feminised national industry (through a clause in the latest collective bargaining agreement with the union) are a testimony not only to the early pioneering work by Latin American women workers and some small farmers’ leaders, but also to changing attitudes at company management level.
Parallel work by Banana Link and IUF in training women workers and their union representatives in Cameroon and Ghana (see below) has also served to demonstrate the value of women’s education and empowerment per se and its impact on sustainable development in some of the poorest communities in the global industry. 
It is hoped that this practical progress will be successfully taken forward, within the Working Group on Labour Rights, under the joint leadership of a Central American worker with 25 years’ experience of packhouse labour and a Franco-African company manager.

Distributing value fairly along the chain
When it comes to the total amount of value available to distribute along the chain, bananas have a serious comparative disadvantage with other sectors, even with other agro-industrial crops like coffee, tea or cocoa/chocolate.
Not only is it impossible to imagine the ‘Starbuck-isation’ of the banana industry, but take a pair of Nike trainers: they sell for at least ten times their actual cost of production (these trainers also depend on the labour of half a million workers, as do bananas, although exclusively in Asia). In contrast, bananas only sell for two or three times the cost of their delivery to consumers.
Not only have the global banana brands that dominated the industry two decades ago lost most of their differentiated ground to newer brands or unbranded fruit, but their (almost) unprocessed and perishable nature makes extracting extra brand or information-related value nigh-on impossible, especially given that two dozen global buyers keep downward pressure on the price they are prepared to pay for their biggest selling food line. In some countries (where it is not illegal) bananas are even used as ‘loss leaders’.
Another feature of the dessert banana economy is that the labour content of their cost of production is high and pretty well irreplaceable with technology. The fact is that labour costs need to be higher to achieve living wages across the board. Another fact is that increasing the total value available along the chain in a cheap, price-squeezed and largely undifferentiated commodity is very challenging.
When taken together, these two facts alone mean that now that the Forum has the first complete studies on living wage levels for banana exporting countries, using an agreed common methodology by credible independent researchers, there is concern voiced by industry players, notably those who pay the wages, that they cannot squeeze their margins to pay the living wage to their lowest-wage employees who currently earn below this level. Again the issue must be brought back to the need for cooperation or shared efforts: buyers will need to recognise that where margins are genuinely too thin to pay a living wage to all, they will have to contribute to internalising this particular ‘externality’ that is not counted in the actual costs up the chain.
The importance of the banana industry’s serious work on – and in some quarters serious commitment to – living wages being paid to all workers cannot be underestimated. At many levels, key stakeholders right along the chain are leading the field, but in some cases the challenge of actually achieving fairer distribution is great. In low-price, low-margin importing countries like the UK or Germany, where consumer pressure has also led to very high levels of private certification of sustainability standards that now include living wage, the shared effort will require higher retail prices if the challenge is to be met. In other words, consumers will have to play a role that retailers and others will need to explain to them.
In most of the other major markets, there is greater room for manoeuvre in the short term, even if bananas cannot be said to command prices that cover the costs of sustainable production anywhere in the world.
When it comes to another difficult subject tackled in the Forum’s permanent working group on the Distribution of Value - ‘externalities’, or ‘societal costs’ as civil society prefers to term them – the jury is still out as to how to internalise social and environmental costs not currently counted in banana pricing. However, we now have a study in four countries by Trucost and TruePrice, commissioned by Fairtrade International, shared at the most recent meeting of the working group in Panama, that suggests that the total social and environmental costs not counted in current banana prices is between $4 and $6.70 per box.
Costs not counted in current prices estimated in Trucost/TruePrice study

Social costs Environmental costs
Child labour
Forced labour
Harassment (verbal, physical, sexual)
Insufficient income
Occupational health & safety risks
Unpaid overtime
Insufficient wages and social security
Climate change
Air pollutants
Water pollutants
Land pollution
Land occupation
Water depletion

On the issue of what comprises the ‘hidden’ costs there is more or less consensus amongst stakeholders. The debate on how to deal with them once calculated will be one of the tasks of the next period after the third conference of the Forum. Clearly, the outcome will be influenced by the extent to which living wages are implemented, but on many of the other societal costs, decisions about changes in production systems will be determinant. Moving away from a high-input-dependent monoculture model is one and the same process as internalising a good number of uncounted costs to natural resources and current and future generations.
Cooperating for fair competition
The message coming out of this rapid review of the progress generated in and alongside the World Banana Forum is that movement towards a genuinely sustainable industry has come about as stakeholders start to collaborate. Deeper and broader cooperation can only accelerate the progress since 2010. 
If, for a minimal price-tag of a million or so dollars (mainly funded by WBF members), we have been able to progress complex and sensitive discussions in one of the world’s most competitive industries, then imagine what could be achieved if we were to all step up a gear and recognise that cooperation is the prerequisite to fair competition, fairly distributed value along the chain, and Decent and safe work for all the women and men involved, all based on genuinely sustainable production systems that meet global consumer demand.
In this vision, bananas could mark out paths to a sustainable future, rather than be condemned to a monolithic industrial past.


By Kahlil Apuzen-Ito of the Foundation for Agrarian Reform Cooperatives in Mindanao (FARMCOOP)

As we walked towards the village Katalelan in Sibulan, we stopped at one of the community basins where indigenous Tagabawa Bagobo women and children gather to fill their jugs with fresh water. Dennis Amad, one of the village leaders, recounted that during the recent El Nino drought in 2016, it would take 20 minutes to fill one gallon of water from the community water supply and sometimes, women and children had to walk further if the source dried up.  “During the drought, we were only able to drink one cup of water a day,” says his wife Rosalinda. Health concerns caused by the drought compelled us to conduct an emergency medical mission which served 519 indigenous Sibulan Tagabawa Bagobo community members including children.

Photo: Tagabawa Bagobo children wait for water from community basin (FARMCOOP)

Local to Global Food Security

During the mission, our team found that the lack of access to clean water and poor sanitation over the years led to many illnesses, such as diarrhoea and urinary tract infections among girls and women. In addition to respiratory diseases, the medical mission also found malnutrition to be common amongst children and adults, including signs of stunting (low height for age), an effect of long-term poor nutrition and long-term dehydration. 

This situation of undernourishment unfortunately exemplifies the current state of small-scale farmers globally. According to FAO 2015 report, there are 795 million people in the world who are suffering from chronic undernourishment, 98% of them live in developing countries. Half of the people suffering from undernourishment live in small farms. Though studies suggest the pivotal role that small holder farmers have in global food security, small scale farmers’ potential to fill this role is constrained due to their marginalization, their limited ability to access capital, technology, information, and resources to fully develop the potential of their farms. 

Environmental changes as a result of extreme weather patterns further exacerbate their marginalization when factors such as pests and diseases, drought, typhoons and flooding can damage their crops. In addressing food security at the local, national, and global levels, building the resilience of small scale farmers in the face of climate change is paramount.    

Organizing: A Step to Collective Resilience

One of the first steps towards resilience for small-scale farmers in the Philippines, particularly for agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) in Mindanao, is to organize themselves; failure to do so weakens their bargaining power which can lead to market exploitation. Our non-profit organization Foundation Agrarian Reform Cooperative in Mindanao, Inc. (FARMCOOP) was founded under this premise. 

Since 1995, FARMCOOP assisted in: 1) organizing small scale farmers into cooperatives; 2) facilitating the redistribution of land to agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs); 3) abrogating onerous contracts; and 4) negotiating for fair pricing of farmers’ cooperative products. 

Realizing the educational, technological, and capital constraints of small holder farmers, FARMCOOP, with international support, expanded its scope to include not only legal but also farm to market technical, administrative, and management services which supported the small scale farmers’ capacity to deliver high quality products for export.

In addition to assisting 14 conventional banana farming cooperatives, FARMCOOP has organized two organic banana cooperatives owned and operated by the indigenous Tagabawa Bagobo in Sibulan, Davao.  And within the last 3 years, indigenous and ARBs small-scale farmers have approached FARMCOOP seeking assistance in developing organic agroforestry farms. We are currently working with: 259 indigenous Tagabawa Bagobo farmers in establishment of 220 hectares of agroforestry farms in the upland Sibulan ancestral domain; 1,153 ARBs in Agusan in transforming 2,062 hectares of monocrop palm oil plantation into diversified agroforestry system of organic bananas, cacao, vegetables, and rice; and 2,436 coconut farmers with 3,309 hectares in organic conversion, value-addition and diversification.  In sum, FARMCOOP is providing services to over 6000 small-scale farmers with farm lands ranging from less than one hectare to less than three hectares. 

Impact of Climate Change

The international banana industry continues to be a niche export market for thousands of small-scale farmers in Mindanao, Philippines yet their main source of livelihood has become increasingly at risk due to climate change. The droughts and typhoons within the last 20 years have severe impact on the farms, farmers, and future sustainability of small-scale farming.  

Rainfall in the Philippines is strongly influenced by the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), in which the country experiences lower rainfall during El Nino years, followed by increased amount of rainfall during La Nina. This weather pattern recurs every 2 to 7 years and over the past decades ENSO has become more extreme. 

Typhoons and Floods

La Nina has become wetter with rainfall more intense and typhoons more frequent and destructive. Floods and storms in the Philippines have increased from less than 20 floods recorded from 1960 to 1969, (affecting less than 3 million people), to more than 110 floods/storms from 2000 to 2008, (affecting an estimated 35 million people).  The once typhoon-free Mindanao was devastated by typhoon Washi in 2011 which affected an estimated 695,195 people in 13 provinces, causing estimated 1,292 deaths, and US$ 11.3 million in damages. Three years later, a category 5 typhoon Pablo, one of the strongest recorded in history, hit Mindanao. An estimated 6.2 million people were affected in Mindanao and the Visayas. In Mindanao, the two most affected provinces are Compostela Valley and Davao del Norte which are the largest producers of export Cavendish banana and coconut. 10,000 ha of banana were destroyed, costing the industry US$ 318 million. Three of FARMCOOP’s partner conventional banana cooperatives in Davao del Norte were severely affected: AMSKARBEMCO, MARMBMCO, and SFARMBEMCO. Collectively, these smallholder farmer cooperatives are called the CASAMA coops with a membership of 416 farmers. They own a total of 385 hectares of which 40% of the bananas in their farms were toppled by typhoon Pablo and 41% of the area was flooded.

FARMCOOP and UNIFRUTTI assisted the CASAMA coops to obtain a loan from the Landbank to rehabilitate their land for the amount of US$ 6,846 per hectare but they have not been able to pay the amortization because of lowered production caused by the fungal disease Fusarium Wilt which has affected many of the conventional banana farms. With Fusarium wilt being soil borne, the disease can be easily spread with the flood and cause further crop damage. As of June 2017, banana production of AMSKARBEMCO, MARMBMCO, and SFARMBEMCO had dropped down to only 51%, 6.3% and 6.4%, respectively.


In 2016, El Nino drought impacted 16 of the Philippines 18 regions, affecting 413,456 farming households, 556,721 hectares of land and costing US$ 325 million damage due to crop production losses. The drought’s impact was strongest in Mindanao affecting farmers in 26 provinces including all of FARMCOOP’s partner conventional small-scale farmers.  During the drought, organic banana farm production appear to be stable but production in 13 of 14 conventional banana farming cooperatives dropped. However, the sudden onset of heavy rains in the following months brought about red rust pests which made the organic bananas cosmetically unfit for the export market. Organic production dropped by an average of 25 percent for the next three months. The World Food Programme 2016 report succinctly reports the serious impact of El Nino to agriculture:

“The causal links between drought risk and food security are complex and are linked to a number of phenomena: water, scarcity, salinization of agricultural lands, destruction of crops, and increased incidence of pests and diseases.”

For FARMCOOP’s newly formed partner Sibulan Ancestral Domain Organic Cooperative (SADOPCO), the drought caused the death of thousands of cacao and coffee seedlings, delaying the establishment of agroforestry farms.

Challenges in Organic, Diversification, and Soil and Water Management

The increasing trend in extreme weather patterns affecting the Philippines has placed it under the Global Climate Risk Index 2017 list as one of five countries in the world most affected by climate change. There is a critical need to reduce the vulnerability of marginalized farming communities by managing the risks posed by climate change.  FARMCOOP’s venture into organic agriculture since 2004 and more recently agroforestry, crop diversification and soil and water conservation are aligned with adaptation strategies to promote climate-resilience in agriculture. However scaling out these practices to be practical for small scale farmers faces major technical, financial, resource, and social challenges.

Photo: diversification of mono crop palm oil to organic banana (FARMCOOP)

Technical: All the smallholder farmers, including indigenous farmers that we work with had become accustomed to decades of conventional agriculture’s use of pesticides and fertilizer.  The upland indigenous culture of “slash-burn” agriculture is no longer appropriate. This practice, coupled with deforestation and open-tillage conventional agriculture, has exposed land to soil erosion, resulting to poor fertility of soils. Local knowledge, cultural practices, and experience in effective organic approaches to revive soil health are scarce and not fully studied. Moreover, at the time of FARMCOOPs venture into experimenting with organic approach to banana production in 2000, there was little to no expertise or field-tested research for improving soil conditions and plant fertility, particularly for “high-market value” crops such as Cavendish bananas in the Philippines. Finding skilled scientists and technicians with years of empirical experience in successful organic farming in the Philippines continues to be a challenge. 

There is also a lack of available technical local/national field-tested specific information on organic pest/disease control and appropriate specie combination for optimum diversification of Cavendish bananas, cacao, and other fruit trees with cover crops. Local weather data or early warning technology critical for farmers to plan are also lacking or non-existent.

Resources/Financial: In our experience, small scale farmers do not have enough resource materials from their farms or even collectively to create the right balance of C:N ratio for compost. The cost of external organic concoctions, additional labour for pest and disease control, the high cost of organic certification, and the 3 year certification process—all posed financial barriers. Furthermore, many of the farmers have long adopted conventional methods of applying pesticides and fertilizers for immediate results, making the lag time of slow-release organic fertilizer seemingly ineffective. In terms of soil and water management and agroforestry, for upland farms-- capacity building, community organizing, material, and labor costs to implement Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) and terracing can be prohibitive, especially when there are multi-farms and multi-stakeholders involved. For service NGOs such as FARMCOOP, conducting field trials to study the effect of compost, improve compost quality and compost recommendations on bananas are hampered by high cost of soil, microbial, and plant laboratory analyses. 

Capacity Building and Application: There are variabilities in which prescribed organic practices (i.e., amount and timing of organic application and pest and diseases biological control) are dutifully and consistently followed by the smallholder farmers or their hired field help. These variabilities affect consistency and progress in organic farm production.   

Mitigations and Call for International Support

With the aid of local in international support, over the years, FARMCOOP was able to develop: 1) a facility to create organic certified organic inputs; 2) establish vermi-compost sheds in pilot areas; 3) subsidized the organic certification of farms; and 4) expand its technical services to organic, value-addition, and crop diversification. Soil and water conservation such as mulching and water catchments are being tested in pilot areas. We are also conducting community discussions on indigenous cultural practices in farming and seed storage to make organic practices culturally appropriate. After witnessing that only the indigenous vegetables survived the 2016 drought in FARMCOOP’s food security and nutrition pilot family project, training of seed saving of indigenous vegetables and crops to the small-scale farmer households are being prioritized. Women village leaders are leading the seed saving technology transfer with 32 women trained who have provided indigenous seeds to 720 neighbouring farm households. These can potentially have a significant impact on local food security and perhaps globally should these particular indigenous products find their way to the international market. 

However the current efforts are overall insufficient to effectively counter the significant impact on livelihood and farm production inflicted by pest and diseases, typhoons, floods, and drought. Moreover, organic banana production is lagging considerably. There is a great need to improve and develop more appropriate organic methods and applied research in the following areas: quality and cost of organic input; effectiveness of organic pest/disease control; appropriate diversification and cover crop integration to maximize farm productivity; soil and water conservation methods and management; integration of indigenous or appropriate drought-resistant crops.

Whereas some individual small-scale farmers from our partner conventional banana cooperatives have volunteered to apply organic compost in their farms, a full transition of these farms to organic will only occur if the majority of the farmers themselves are convinced by empirical and local evidence, demonstrating directly the long-term economic benefits and farm productivity of organic, diversification, soil/water management and drought-resistant crops. 

In this light, we hope that more active collaboration with international institutions, researchers, non-profits, businesses, and networks in the industry such as World Banana Forum, EUROBAN, and others can assist us in our efforts. Of urgent need are robust field applied research and transfer of information, technology, and skills in order to develop climate-resilient strategic approaches that can be practical for small scale farmers in the short and long-term. 


Between 2013 and 2016, Banana Link and the IUF coordinated a capacity building programme in partnership with the Fako Agricultural Workers Union (FAWU, Cameroon) and the General Agricultural Workers Union of Ghana TUC, with the aim of ‘Securing Decent Work in tropical fruit export production’. This Comic Relief funded project was based on the premise that workers need to know their rights to secure them and that the elected representatives of independent unions need to have the capacity to negotiate on behalf of workers effectively. Project activity also supported union leadership to be more active in the global industry – notably through the World Banana Forum -  and thus engage with the decision makers that have the power to affect change along the value chain. 

Representative skills were developed and pineapple and banana plantation owners reported significantly enhanced social dialogue, which in Cameroon resulted in a range of improved working conditions including, in one year, a 48% reduction in pro rata deductions from wages. FAWU reported a huge increase in grievances1 being settled in the field rather than coming to the union office. Training was based on a ‘Problem, Information, Planning’ technique which focused on representatives knowing the issues that concern workers, learning how to gather the information about these and subsequent planning of how to address work based issues. 

Achieving living wages is an extraordinarily challenging issue in many workplaces, as will be discussed at the Third Conference.  Representatives not only engaged in building collective bargaining skills to achieve adequate wage levels but also identified the need to strengthen worker ability to manage waged income, in particular strategies for borrowing and saving. Financial education in Ghana  resulted, in on year, in 31% of workers borrowing at lower rates. Creative strategic thinking in response to very low wage levels in the Cameroon industry resulted in FAWU representatives establishing a cooperative farm which now provides affordable food for the households of its 700 members. 

It has been critical that representatives know the regulatory framework in which they are operating, have copies of, and really understand in depth the rights and responsibilities detailed in the Labour Code, company regulations and Collective Bargaining Agreements. Caroline, a FAWU representative commented that ‘Now I am bold. I can talk to anybody. I can express myself anywhere just because I know my rights’.

At the heart of the work has been the regular and systematic education of workers wherever possible – from the field to the trucks on the way to work. ‘Muster training’ in Cameroon is delivered at 5.30am in the morning. One representative described how he chooses a clause in the Labour Code each week and then talks to his peers about this, gradually building their rights knowledge.  Over the project more than 10,000 workers participated in education sessions; research showed a rise from 25% to 65.3% of workers in Cameroon who not only claimed they now knew their rights but could name them. 

Photo: union rep talks to members at morning muster at Golden Exotics Limited in Ghana (James Robinson)

Education has also taken place at union leadership level, primarily through the IUF Africa Network of Banana Unions, established and developed during the project. Member unions from Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Ghana, the majority of whom organise workers in Compagnie Fruitiere subsidiaries, meet annually to discuss strategic approaches, including this September, prioritising work towards gender equity and living wages. IUF facilitated country level training is delivered throughout the year which includes building the capacity of members to be updated on and participate in WBF activity. Member unions in Cameroon are partners in the WBF’s Banana Occupational Health and Safety Initiative (BOHESI) and are currently reviewing the final BOHESI training manual that will be used in training for trainers and subsequently, plantation workers, at PHP and CDC in 2018. Twelve representatives from the African network will participate in the Third Conference to share their challenges and advances, and most importantly to communicate with and learn from other stakeholders.

In keeping with the sharing of good practice that epitomises the WBF approach, the project continued to promote the South - South learning which is key to Banana Link’s mission and in 2015 supported partners from Cameroon and Ghana to visit Colombia to see the impact of a strong sectoral Collective Bargaining Agreement. As a direct consequence FAWU began negotiating to end exceptionally long working days in the packhouses and secured earlier finishing times for 1420 workers. 

This project demonstrated that education is a fundamental factor in enabling change for workers on plantations. Whether that is enabling someone to know the role of a Health and Safety Committee or giving a woman the confidence to speak up for her right to work in a safe workplace free of sexual harassment and violence. Whether it is building the skills of an elected representative to effectively handle grievances or building the capacity of a collective bargaining team. During evaluation visits over the last year to Cameroon and Ghana we have continued to see highly motivated and skilled representatives continuing to resolve grievances, successfully negotiate improved workplace conditions, and consistently educating their members. Sustaining and developing this education and training work further however, requires additional investment especially in our training of trainers; building the capacity of union officers and representatives to train others to deliver education at workplace level. 

The most striking impact of the project though? Undoubtedly the work undertaken to enable women to organise themselves and to become more active decision makers in their union and in their workplace. Last month nearly 30 FAWU women representatives and members gathered to share their achievements as a result of education and empowerment. They reported successfully negotiating a day off for breastfeeding2, for seperate dressing rooms and toilets, and for field workers to switch to safer tasks, and a small number are now being trained for promotion to Headwomen or undertaking new roles, including welding and engineering. Women are often typified as burden holders or victims of problems in the workplace. However this project evidenced what women in the Latin American industry have been demonstrating for years; women can and should be the creators of solutions to improve and increase their employment opportunities in the industry. And it is quite extraordinary the difference that access to training and the opportunity to meet together regularly to learn and strategise can make to the lives of women workers. 

In the Gender Equity Meeting that proceeds the Third Conference we will be exploring the role that education and training plays in the workplace, including providing greater opportunities for women to be promoted to supervisory and skilled roles, helping in turn to bridge the gender pay gap. Plantation and farm based representatives from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Philippines will be sharing their examples of ‘Practical progress to gender equity’.

This conference, we would urge all stakeholders to consider what part they can play in ensuring access to education at plantation level to empower women and men to secure Decent Work. 

Download ‘Now I am Bold’ to read a brief impact report and watch our short film capturing the voices of some of those involved in the project detailed in this article.


It was around the turn of the millennium that an organic banana industry based on small farms of less than hectare on average started to emerge in Northern Peru. Since 2015, as the export industry has grown, much bigger players are arriving in the region to establish large-scale organic plantations.

Gilbert Bermudez, Deputy Coordinator of COLSIBA, the Latin American Banana and Agroindustrial Workers’ Union Coordinating Body, explains the role that COLSIBA has played in supporting the union to build social dialogue with the small-scale farmers who are now organised in over 30 associations.

It was in 2006 that COLSIBA first went to Peru to support the men and women working who were employed harvesting and packing bananas for a company called SERAGRO SAC, an outsourced labour provider for Dole, the US-based multinational. The workers organised a strike for their rights and some of them were sacked as a result.

COLSIBA, Banana Link and others expressed their solidarity and the workers were able to achieve a decent settlement. SITAG, the Peruvian Agricultural Workers’ Union, emerged from this process and started to grow both in membership and reputation along the Chira Valley near Sullana in the Department of Piura.  
The consolidation of SITAG is a source of great satisfaction for those of us who have supported the union since the beginning. It demonstrates that solidarity and cooperation generates organisation and empowerment, bringing progress towards social justice and dignity for many of those who work in the banana farms of Peru.

Since 2013 a process of dialogue has been initiated between SITAG and eight Fairtrade certified small growers’ associations from the Chira Valley, with the support and facilitation of Fairtrade International, the Peruvian national fair trade producer body (CNCJ) and COLSIBA. This process led to the signing on 15th August 2016 of a framework agreement between the associations and the union. The aim of this agreement is to strengthen the process of trust-building, mutual respect and social dialogue and develop win-win solutions.

We can therefore say that this is a good example of dialogue and negotiation with tangible results. In the last two months, the first two collective bargaining agreements have been signed between the union and the growers’ associations. A collective bargaining agreement is a real step forward in consolidating social dialogue with fair treatment for the workers concerned.

In 2015, the National Federation of Agroindustrial Workers’ Unions (FENTRAIR) was formed. The Federation now has a significant presence in Peru, although this is not without having to confront a series of difficulties related to the anti-union policies prevalent in some sectors of the Peruvian industry.

Throughout this whole period of solidarity with the struggles led by SITAG-FENTRAIR, there is a long list of activities designed to build an strengthen the capacity of the union to play its role: educational activities and training workshops on important subjects such as ILO Conventions 184, 87, 98 and 135 national labour legislation, the international banana trade and the World Banana Forum, gender issues in the union, the role of COLSIBA, framework agreements and collective bargaining, labour and trade union rights etc. Much has been done, we can say, but the greatest achievement is that the workers themselves are the main protagonists; they have grown in self-esteem, as well as in their ability to organise themselves and turn the union into a self-sustaining institution.

Democratic and transparent practices have been fundamental in achieving all this, especially given that Peru is a country with some essentially regressive labour laws such as Laws #27360 and #27460. The existence of free and independent trade unions is very much necessary, especially in the current environment where certification and codes of conduct unfortunately proliferate, but which, in many cases, have become little more than another company marketing tool. In the daily reality of the large-scale horticultural plantations the rights of those employed are all too often not respected.

Banana production for export from Peru is set to undergo rapid growth in the next few years, partly because of the particular climatic conditions that permit organic production. Many of the big fruit companies are now present in the banana sector, which has ceased to be marginal and is increasingly finding its place amongst the major international players.

This makes it all the more necessary to have an active trade union with serious vision and proposals, and that has a local, national and regional presence. In this sense, practical solidarity without strings attached is very much welcomed by the men and women who are thereby empowered to resolve their own problems through their own efforts. COLSIBA is committed to support such free and independent organisations.


After years of work and much political and legislative wrangling the Labour Procedures Reform (RPL in Spanish) finally came into force in Costa Rica in July 2017. The independent trade unions that have struggled for years to defend workers they consider to have been sacked unfairly in the banana and pineapple industries, having to put up with tribunal procedures that could take up to 5 or 6 years, are seeing the first tangible results from the new legislation.

The law now means, amongst other advances, that hearings and decisions on reinstatement after unfair sacking can be expedited in just a few weeks from sacking to reinstatement. Since the RPL came into force two women and eight men working at different pineapple and banana plantations have all regained the jobs from which they were unfairly dismissed, thanks to their affiliation to the SITRAP trade union.

The workers took their cases to the Labour Ombudsman which is the new body established to present cases in Labour Court. They used the special rapid procedure for cases of alleged discrimination that is one of the measures included in the Reform. In all ten cases in the last few weeks, the pineapple and banana workers, sacked because they were members of the union, got their jobs back in Grupo Acon, Del Monte and Dole plantations and packhouses.

The reinstatements were ordered by judges within less than one week of the cases being presented. In cases where the employer is reluctant to accept the court order, Labour Ministry staff are empowered to accompany the worker back to their former job.  
The trade union’s General Secretary, Didier Leiton Valverde, comments that: 

this shows us that the RPL is benefiting working people and shows that some people were wrong to say that it would be of no value to workers. It also demonstrates that there are good professionals in the Ombudsman’s office and Labour Courts who are interpreting the legislation properly. People who did not join the union before out of fear that the employer could sack them indiscriminately are now losing their fear.