In a letter to Banana Link on 23rd April, Costa Rican banana industry body Corporacion Bananera Nacional (CORBANA) has complained that our short overview of measures taken as a result of COVID-19 across plantations was inaccurate and deliberately misrepresented the industry.
Banana Link refutes this allegation. As our overview stated clearly, the information we published about the lack of implementation of Costa Rican Ministry of Health protocols on plantations, was reported to us in good faith by independent trade unions working in the banana and pineapple exporting sector, and we had no reason to believe that it was inaccurate at that time. We certainly had no intention to deliberately misrepresent industries on which over 80,000 people rely for their livelihoods and which generates close to two billion dollars a year to the Costa Rican economy. Our concern, in reflecting the reports of our trade union partners, was to see the human health of plantation workers and the economic health of the industry adequately protected against the impact of the virus.
Successful campaign against virus
Like in most countries around the world, the situation is developing daily, and now that we are several weeks into the pandemic, is that clear that the Costa Rican authorities and the people themselves have managed the arrival of COVID-19 very well, as there have only been six deaths attributed to the virus to date. The virus is not present in the plantations and no worker is known to have been affected.
Indeed, as CORBANA recognises in its letter, the fact that Costa Rica’s public health system has been in place over 75 years and remains much better than the system in neighbouring countries is clearly one of the key factors in this success.
In the plantations
We now understand that the Costa Rican government did not require the industry introduce measures beyond ensuring that there were sufficient hand-washing facilities on plantations and in packhouses, and to ensure that transport to work was reviewed. Although the Health Ministry did not issue instructions that would have led to the need for agribusiness companies to make significant investments, many have put additional measures in place. These include perspex screens to separate workers in packhouses, ensuring that all workers do not eat in large groups, and have laid on more transport to and from work to try and implement some level of physical distancing.
However, one trade union leader has commented that companies have taken advantage of the crisis to make life even more difficult for them as organisations – ” Meetings (to resolve grievances) have been suspended between management and workers, leaving workers undefended”, while “some companies have even said they can no longer deal with issues by email or only on Mondays!”.
We understand that working days have not been shortened and can still exceed 12 hours per day. In some cases, workers say they fear assault when they finish work after dark, as the streets are deserted and this can leave them vulnerable to attack. Where it exists, transport to and from work has become a problem for some too, with cases of workers waiting up to two hours after finishing work, only to find themselves in buses where physical distancing recommendations cannot be respected.
As some in the banana industry have commented, given that everybody is working as much, if not more, than before the pandemic outbreak, and that many retailers are selling more bananas than ever, is it not reasonable for buyers to be contributing to ensuring that the cost of decent measures does not become an obstacle?
Whatever the answer to this question, long may Costa Rica stay as COVID-19-free as possible.
Jorge Sauma of Corbana spoke to Fruitnet recently to outline moves taken by the country’s banana sector to deal with the pandemic
How is the coronavirus impacting the production and export of bananas in Costa Rican?
Jorge Sauma: So far the sector has not been badly disrupted. [As of 22 April the country had reported 669 cases of Covid-19 and six deaths]. Banana farms have been operating normally, but with all of the necessary measures in place to protect workers.
During the first two months of this year, Costa Rican banana exports increased by 6 per cent, but we are waiting to have the March figure complete to how coronavirus has affected shipments.
What security measures have companies had to put in place to safeguard workers and prevent the spread of the virus?
JS: The safety and health of workers is a priority for banana companies. Corbana has developed and disseminated comprehensive protocols on social distancing and hygiene, based on the norms and recommendations of the Ministry of Health and other relevant authorities.
These include such measures as regular hand washing; staggered lunch breaks; restrictions on how many workers can travel on each vehicle; disinfection of all personnel and entering farms and packhouses and training for all workers.
What difficulties are you experiencing in terms of logistics? Are the country’s ports still operating normally?
JS: We haven’t experienced any delays so far, but we are having some issues with availability of containers, surcharges implemented by shipping companies, delays at some destination ports and interruptions at border crossings, but by and large we’ve managed to deal with these as and when they arise.
We remain optimistic that the situation will not get worse, but everything will depend on how the disease evolves and the measures markets put in place to prevent its spread.
Has the sector received any help from the government?
JS: The government has implemented a range of measures, such as tax holidays and a moratorium on loan repayments.
The measures also include a three-month moratorium on the payment of VAT, income tax and customs duties for companies, extendable to a fourth month. The Central Bank of Costa Rica carried has also reduced interest rates and made loan conditions more flexible, while the government has approved a new law to make working hours more flexible.
Has there been a notable downturn in orders? If so, in which markets have you noticed the greatest difference? And are you taking steps to reduce your export volume?
JS: According to publications by various media, consumption of vegetables and fruits has exploded as cases of Covid-19 have grown and more people are confined to their homes. There has been an increase in demand bananas, as one of the most widely consumed fruits, but we’ll need more time to see exactly how this translates into higher sales.
It looks as though the current situation will last for at least a few more months. What do you think the long-term impact will be on the Costa Rican banana industry?
JS: As I said, there has been no noticeable impact so far, but we cannot rule out that there will be consequences, although quantifying them is difficult right now. But we must be prepared to look for solutions.
For sure, there will be a contraction in the global economy and its extent will vary from country to country. Bananas are the cheapest fruit in produce aisles and also the one that provides one of the greatest contributions to health as they are a rich source of potassium and vitamins.
A recent study shows that bananas are also a good source of protein and lectin which has virus-fighting powers and can therefore help consumers during the current pandemic.