Approximately 70% of workers in the Costa Rican pineapple industry are Nicaraguan migrants. These migrant workers are the secret to Costa Rica’s pineapple success, providing a cheaper and more flexible workforce. Many have no official papers or visas leaving them particularly vulnerable to the power of their employers, who can sack and deport them at any sign of trouble, i.e., if they complain about working conditions or join a trade union.
Around 50% of workers on Costa Rican pineapple plantations are hired through subcontractors who provide a flexible, low paid and non-unionised workforce. They also allow the producing companies to avoid direct responsibility for ensuring adequate working conditions in line with national and international labour laws.
Most workers do receive a salary above the national minimum wage but may have to work up to 14 hours a day, 6 days a week to earn this salary. Many pineapple workers earn around half of what they deem to be a 'living wage'.
Pineapple companies increasingly prefer to employ men due to the 'high costs' associated with employing women, such as maternity pay. For those women that have secured work the conditions can be very difficult, such as discrimination and, in some cases, sexual harassment. The long working hours are particularly challenging for women who are left with no spare time to care for the family and household.
The level of union organisation is extremely low (about 2%) in the Costa Rican pineapple industry. Union members can face discrimination, persecution and sometimes violence. Anti-union tactics include:
- moving union members to undesirable and low paid jobs
- mass redundancies, with only non-union members being re-hired
- putting union members on ‘black lists’, preventing them from finding work on other plantations.
Agrochemicals - human health and environmental problems
Pineapple production is characterised by large-scale, high-input and monoculture plantations dependent on regular and intense use of a number of toxic agrochemicals. The poor environmental practice of both national and international producers is leading to environmental problems of contamination of local aquifers and ground water, erosion, sedimentation and deforestation.
Many local communities have had their natural sources of drinking water contaminated, for example in the communities of El Cairo, La Francia and Luisiana in the Southern Atlantic zone of Costa Rica where over 6,000 people have to rely on government tanks to deliver drinking water supplies to the affected region. Health impacts such as skin diseases, respiratory problems, gastric illnesses and birth defects have been reported in local communities.
Despite national and international campaigns to halt the damaging expansion of pineapple production and hold companies responsible for their actions, environmental regulations continue to be violated; the pineapple companies’ economic and political power secures their impunity.
Case study: Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs) in Costa Rica
Concerns for human health and the environment
- Handling of chlorpyrifos-impregnated covers for bananas (a practice now phased out by certified plantations)
- Dermal exposure to fungicides in fruit packing plants
- Weak compliance with, and inadequate monitoring of, occupational Health & Safety norms.
Smallholder farmers growing export and basic food crops face different exposure risks, related to knapsack and motorised spraying with inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and poor understanding of acute and chronic health hazards. National statistics from 2008 revealed an average of 100 fatal poisonings per year, with methomyl causing the highest frequency, followed by paraquat and terbufos3. Over 200 cases of acute poisonings annually were also recorded, raising concerns that commercial agricultural interests were overriding public health and environmental protection goals.
Recent steps in risk reduction
Photo 1: Migrant worker's family, Costa Rica pineapple plantation
Photo 2: Chemical hazard warning sign, Costa Rica pineapple plantation