Pressure from multinational companies and consumers to keep prices low affects hundreds of thousands of workers in the banana industry. They often fail to earn enough to feed their families properly. As has happened throughout our global economy, a significant proportion of plantation labour has been outsourced to sub-contractors with companies keen to distance themselves from any responsibility for employment conditions...and reduce costs. It is also much harder for sub-contracted workers to organise into trade unions.
Workers on banana plantations in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Belize and Costa Rica are migrants who have little chance of exercising their labour and other social rights, especially if they have no legal status in the host country.
Women workers in countries such as Ecuador and Costa Rica can represent as little as 7% of the workforce, because employers view women as 'high cost, high risk' employees, and women are often denied maternity benefits. They are often offered short-term contracts, and are at constant risk of losing their jobs. In some Latin American countries, wome nhave to produce medical certificates proving that they are not pregnant, or submit pregnancy tests before they are offered jobs. Those with jobs can be the victims of sexual discrimination and harassment.
Health and safety
The health and safety of workers is compromised by routine exposure to toxic agrochemicals and a lack of appropriate safety equipment. Field work is very physically demanding, especially in tropical conditions. In packhouses, repetitive actions cause strains and injuries. Robust, independent trade unions are vital to educate workers about health and safety at work and ensure that national legislation as well as private standards are observed.
Trade union freedom
Trade union membership is low in some exporting countries due to the widespread use of a range of anti-union tactics by national and multinational banana companies. In Guatemala, banana workers face some of the worst conditions, and trade union activists face a fear-ridden reality through the widespread use of violence and even assassination. In Costa Rica, the banana companies use non-union committees and the ‘Solidarismo’ movement to prevent independent trade unions from forming or from gaining members. These committees sign so-called 'settlements' covering wages and conditons that the industry presents to the outside world as collective bargaining, but in reality the workers have no real say.
Across the industry, national and international labour laws - such as the right to join an independent trade union and bargain collectively - 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.
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.
ITUC Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - for the latest country-specific information
Guide to Costa Rica labour relations issues, Banana Link 2009
Click the icon below for Solidarismo leaflet
Photos: Strike, Peru, December 2009
Banana worker in the Dom. Republic, 2012