Despite Latin America having some of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world, the ‘essential’ banana export industry has thrived, while workers have been left to pay the price in lay offs, wage reductions, extended working hours and erosion of labour rights. A situation further exacerbated by European supermarkets abusing their bargaining power to further reduce the already woefully low prices they pay for the world’s favourite fruit.
There will be lay-offs, loss of acquired rights, loss of social benefits, more unemployment, more poverty, more delinquency, more deterioration in the quality of life. In short: more impoverished countries’Didier Leiton, General Secretary of SITRAP, Costa Rica
Plantations respond to Covid-19
As the Covid-19 pandemic spread through Latin America last spring, trade unions representing plantation workers sought the implementation of measures to protect the health and incomes of workers. The response from employers, can best be described as varied, ranging from commendable in some to, at best, indifference in others, and attempts to impose detrimental changes in working hours and pay in others.
Following worker protests in Colombia, the plantation workers union SINTRAINAGRO negotiated a COVID-19 Biosecurity Protocol with the employers association, Augura, which implemented extensive, regularly monitored, sanitary measures, which reflected the constructive relationship that exists between unions and employers in the banana sector.
In the other major banana producing countries the implementation of protection was more patchy, and in both Ecuador and Costa Rica, governments attempted to use the pandemic to as a pretext to push through legislation eroding working conditions and labour rights.
The Ecuadorian government implemented labour law reforms in May to address the economic impacts of the pandemic, which provided for a reduction of up to 50 per cent of working hours and with it a cut of up to 45 per cent of the worker’s salary and empowers employers to unilaterally determine the worker’s vacation period. Although, to be fair, at the time of writing, we are not aware of that any of the banana producers in the country have utilised this new provision, the ‘business as usual’ sackings of workers for forming and joining trade unions has continued in the Ecuadorian industry.
And in Costa Rica the government pushed new legislation through the parliament in March, which the industry had been trying to promote for some time, making working hours and therefore remuneration much more flexible, allowing employers to cut the working day (and pay) by 50 per cent or more, without compensation for workers.
As a joint statement by Costa Rican public and private sector unions explained at the time: ‘This bill, far from giving us a solution to the problem facing the country, will only aggravate the situation, since it transfers the risks facing companies to their workers, when the crisis is the fault of neither party. In the face of such a crisis, it is the workers who are the most vulnerable and therefore require the most protection from the State.’
Thriving banana exports
Despite the pandemic, end of year export figures for Latin America showed that exports from across the region were up to record levels. Figures for the world’s largest exporter, Ecuador, were up by 5 per cent compared to 2019, while Colombia’s were up 8 per cent, and Costa Rica 3 per cent. Only Guatemala, among the big four Latin American exporting countries, recording a slight 1 per cent reduction, despite remaining dominant in the North American consumer market, where nearly two in five bananas sold are produced in Guatemala.
Despite this, the regional banana workers’ trade union body COLSIBA reports that in many countries this record economic performance is at the expense of workers and their health. This includes a drastic reduction in permanent contracts in Ecuador, excessively long working days (on average between 8 and 14 hours above the 48 hour/week maximum) in Costa Rica, while in Guatemala, many producers in the plantations of the Pacific South do not respect basic labour rights and, in some cases, do not even pay the minimum wage.
Colombia’s main exporting region of Urabá is the exception that proves this unfortunate rule, where a model Biosecurity Protocol negotiated between the producers’ association Augura and the trade union SINTRAINAGRO has meant that neither wages nor conditions were negatively affected for the great majority of the country’s banana workers.
Plantation workers pay the price for Europe’s banana wars
Adding to the plight of plantation workers, in November last year, the ALDI supermarket chain announced its intention once again to reduce the price it pays for bananas, by around 1 Euro per box, making their 2021 price the lowest ever. The ALDI price acts, within the industry, as a reference price to which the other supermarkets follow suit to maintain their competitiveness. A process which, over the past 10 to 15 years, has seen a race-to-the bottom, with the bottom getting ever lower every year.
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In an industry where many workers and their communities face poverty, lack of employment, poor job security, lack of trade union freedom and collective bargaining rights, the decreasing returns for producers make a bad situation worse. The irony being that these very same supermarkets, in their Corporate Social Responsibility messaging, commit themselves to compliance with human and labour rights, living wages, decent work, gender equity, occupational health, etc.
‘There will be lay-offs, loss of acquired rights, loss of social benefits, more unemployment, more poverty, more delinquency, more deterioration in the quality of life. In short: more impoverished countries’ says Didier Leitón, General Secretary of the SITRAP union in Costa Rica.
Meanwhile, Adela Torres, General Secretary of the National Union of Agricultural Industry Workers (SINTRAINAGRO) in Colombia says ‘This decision by Aldi, taken in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the hurricanes, ETA and IOTA, which affect the fruit-producing countries, would generate a human catastrophe that would affect women in particular. Tens of thousands of plantation households depend on female income earners and family dependents. Women’s rights are more violated than those of our male colleagues.’
Workers fighting back
Despite this gloomy picture, workers in Peru have shown a willingness to fight back, with demonstrations rocking the agricultural heartlands of the Ica region of the country in early December, demanding better pay and working conditions, and the end to a law that means they do not share the same labour rights protections as workers in other industries, and enables the exploitation of workers by agri-business firms.
Initially enacted in 2000, the Peruvian Agrarian Promotion Law created a specific labour regime for seasonal farm workers, allowing employers major exceptions to standard labour legislation in the country, along with favourable tax treatment for export-oriented agriculture.
This specific regime has seen turnover for the agriculture export sector, which employs around 800,000 workers and produces a wide range of fruits and vegetables, from mangos to blueberries and asparagus, soar from a few hundred-million dollars to nearly $8 billion.
Originally intended to have a twenty year lifetime, the Peruvian government announced last year that it would be extended to 2031, and despite some improvements in terms of holiday rights and social security coverage, it means workers are still not able to enjoy decent pay and conditions. Seasonal agricultural workers typically labour up to nine hours a day for around 30 soles (around £6.40), despite the law prescribing a minimum daily wage of 39.19 soles (around £8.03). The protesters are demanding the minimum daily wage be set at 60 soles (around £12.35).
In response to the demonstrations, Peru’s newly appointed interim president, Francisco Sagasti, announced he was to introduce a bill to Congress revoking the law. A multi-party commission was subsequently appointed to draft the text of a replacement law, but trade unions rejected the proposed new law as it did not address their demands for better wages and collective bargaining rights. And at the time of writing, unions have withdrawn from talks with the government due to dismissals of workers in the agricultural sector, and have vowed to continue the protests in support of their demands.
Dignity and livelihoods
That workers across the region continue to organise and to fight despite all these obstacles is a source of inspiration and optimism that a fairer and more equitable banana trade is possible. Banana Link will continue to support banana workers’ unions throughout Latin America (and elsewhere around the globe); and to lobby governments, producers and retailers to do more to improve the working conditions and economic wellbeing of workers; and to ensure that the labour rights of plantation workers are respected. We do not think that dignity and decent livelihoods are too much for workers to expect in return for ensuring that consumers in North America and Europe can continue to enjoy their favourite fruit.
Banana Link is a UK based NGO which works in partnership with plantation worker trade unions and small-scale farmer organisations to achieve fair and equitable production and trade in bananas and pineapples based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.
All images except Aldi from BanalaLink website.