SEATTLE, Washington — Bananas are the world’s most consumed fruit, earning producers $10 billion annually. Ecuador’s banana industry accounts for a fourth of the bananas exported to Europe and the United States, making it the world’s top supplier.
Because of the fruit’s popularity, many banana producers neglect the health, safety and humanity of roughly 200,000 workers to meet the high market demand for an affordable product.
To increase profit margin, producers in Ecuador’s banana industry use child labor, dangerous conditions, unfair wages and union suppression. Some of the sector’s corporate giants, including Chiquita and Dole, are notorious for labor abuse and exploitation.
On Ecuadorian banana plantations, many workers are subjected to conditions that threaten their health. The widespread use of pesticides is especially hazardous; Exposure to aerial fumigation can cause short term irritation, such as burning eyes or sores on the skin. Lacking adequate protection, some laborers use banana leaves or clothing items to shield themselves from the chemicals. Long term effects can be more serious. Luis, a 59-year-old worker interviewed for a 2015 study on labor abuse in Ecuador’s banana industry, was diagnosed with early-stage liver cirrhosis due to constant exposure to chemicals.
A 2016 study examined workers on plantations that used pesticides versus those who worked in environments where they were not exposed. When assessing participants’ health, researchers found that individuals who experienced routine chemical exposure reported more chronic health issues, including increased cancer risk.
Child workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation in Ecuador’s banana industry. According to an investigation by the Human Rights Watch, child laborers work an average of 12 hours each day. Many begin their work on plantations at 10 or 11 years old, while some begin working as young as 8 years old. More than 60% of child laborers studied left school by age 14.
Exploitation and Union Suppression
Ecuador’s banana industry remains relatively unchallenged by the demands of workers’ unions. Half of the workers exceed 14-hour workdays and are paid an average of $3.50 each day—less than the minimum wage. They are also required to meet certain production targets to be paid at all. Producers also reduce costs and take advantage of lax labor laws by hiring employees as “permanent temporary” workers.
Despite difficult conditions, strenuous work and meager pay, unionizing remains difficult in Ecuador with only 1% of banana workers involved in labor unions. Infrastructure is one of the hurdles that prevent workers from mobilizing. The Ecuadorian government does not recognize organizations with fewer than 30 members as valid unions. It is difficult for unions to grow to this size since members put themselves at risk of blacklisting and threats of violence.
Despite infrastructural challenges and violent threats, the Agricultural Workers and Peasants’ Trade Union Association has been able to mobilize. The group collects evidence on human rights violations and reports these violations to the UN as well as to the crop’s supply chain.
The Banana Occupational Health and Safety Initiative is another project that unifies international government organizations, corporations, banana producers and NGOs in an effort to regulate the rights and treatment of workers. Funded largely by the Dutch government, BOHESI focuses on sustainability, public health and workers’ access to resources. The initiative aims to improve both the lives of workers and the 2.5 million Educadorians who work in the banana industry.
Because of their popularity, bananas are a cash crop for many Ecuadorian producers. However, the demand creates a market built on blatant disregard for the rights of workers. Corporate negligence has allowed dangerous work conditions, child labor and union suppression activities in order to lower production costs. However, NGOs and government initiatives aim to hold producers accountable so that those working in the industry are compensated fairly and treated humanely.
– Stefanie Grodman