Most bananas in Latin America and increasingly in Africa are grown for export on large plantations. The monoculture production methods used can destroy entire ecosystems. The banana industry consumes more agrochemicals than any other in the world, except cotton. Some of these chemicals are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation. Agrochemical use pollutes water supplies and can have devastating impacts on worker health. Small scale production in these regions and the Caribbean is more sustainable but low prices have forced many farmers out of the international market.
In 2013, just a handful of multinational fruit companies controlled 42.3% of the international banana trade - Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita, Fyffes and Noboa - but supermarkets are now the most powerful actors along the banana supply chain. For example, in 2010 Tesco began sourcing its own bananas directly from plantations in Latin America and West Africa, and Morrisons are also sourcing bananas from independent growers. Supermarkets are able to make substantial profits by paying unsustainably low prices to the fruit companies that market bananas and / or own plantations. On average, workers only earn between 5 - 9% of the total value of bananas, whilst retailers are able to earn between 36% and 43%.
The 'Race to the Bottom'
A 'race to the bottom' in the banana industry has been fuelled by the low prices paid by supermarkets and the cost cutting actions taken by fruit companies as they relocate in search of cheaper labour and weaker legislation in exporting regions. This has also led to unfair trading practices (UTPs) being imposed on workers in the banana sector. A survey carried out in 2011 amongst food suppliers throughout Europe found that 96% of respondents had been subjected to at least one form of UTP and the majority were unlikely to pursue legal action. For example, employers have increasingly sub-contracted labour in a bid to reduce their responsibility for working conditions, the respect of core labour standards or payment of a living wage. Plantation labour is increasingly casual with many workers on temporary contracts or hired on a daily basis. In several countries, membership of independent trade unions has fallen as a direct result.
Plantation conditions are harsh, for example, female workers often work for 14 hours a day without overtime in unbearable hear, for up to 6 days a week. Many workers fail to earn a 'living wage' to cover their basic needs such as housing, food, clothing and education.
Photo: Sitag Peru Dole Strike, 2011