ECUADOR: Blood on the bananas

Issue 

BY DAVID BACON

SAN FRANCISCO — Bonita, the word for beautiful in Spanish, is not a bad description for the nearly flawless bananas available from fruit and vegetable markets across the United States. It is also the name printed on stickers attached to the millions of yellow bunches. But bonita is not the word used by hundreds of workers to describe their experience growing, harvesting and packing that perfect fruit.

That Bonita label belongs to Alvaro Noboa's Exportadora Bananera Noboa, the largest banana exporting company in Ecuador. In April, 1400 Bonita workers organised a union on seven Noboa plantations in Hacienda Los Alamos. They asked for what was already, in many cases, legally required from their employer.

Ecuadorian law says workers must be enrolled in the national health care system — but on banana plantations, virtually no one is. The workers wanted higher wages — their average wage is less than the legal minimum — and they wanted legal recognition for their union, a right guaranteed by Ecuadorian law. Few of the 150,000 banana workers in Ecuador, the largest workforce in the Latin American banana industry, belong to a union.

The company's reaction was swift. More than 120 workers were fired almost immediately and workers on temporary contracts were told that there was no more work. Efforts to negotiate with Noboa went nowhere. After three more union activists were fired, the workers went out on strike on May 6.

Nine days later, on the evening of May 15, 400 hooded men armed with rifles arrived at one of the idle plantations in a Noboa company truck. They invaded the strikers' homes and took the possessions of many workers.

Jan Nimmo, a Scottish observer for BananaLink (an international organisation supporting banana workers), described what strikers told her: "They banged on the doors with rifle butts and dragged workers from their beds kicking them and hitting them. They dragged them out semi-dressed ... [and took them by truck] to the radio office where they were forced to squat with their heads down and their hands behind their backs. They were beaten and insulted and ... told that they were being taken to be killed and dumped in the river."

When strikers tried to resist, many were shot. Mauro Romero's leg was later amputated as a result of his wounds. On the second evening, the armed men shot into the strikers again, wounding more. A large police contingent only arrived the following day, but strikers who were living in company housing on the plantations were expelled. Scabs were brought in to restart production.

Power

The Noboa family is powerful in Ecuador. Alvaro Noboa is a candidate for president in the elections to replace Gustavo Noboa (not a direct relation). Los Alamos Hacienda workers said they have been to join their employer's political party or be fired.

Xavier Monge, a spokesperson for the Exportadora Bananera Noboa, told reporters on June 1 that the company had resumed harvesting bananas on the plantations and that the strike was over.

However, the Federacion Nacional de Campesinos Libres del Ecuador (the Federation of Free Peasants — FENACLE), to which the strikers' unions belong, countered that the strike movement is spreading, not ending. At Noboa's Hacienda Julia, 500 workers struck on April 1. Later that month, the banana pickers at the Rio Culebra plantation, owned by a Danish company, also stopped work.

One out of every four bananas harvested in Ecuador is sold in the US. Noboa is the biggest producer, followed by a consortium called La Favorita, and then the US companies Chiquita (formerly the notorious United Fruit), Dole Farming Company and Del Monte. Together, these companies control the world market in bananas.

In the last decade, these corporations have shifted much of their production to Ecuador, which is now the world's largest banana exporter. The next four are Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Ecuador's non-unionised workers are the big attraction. More than 90% of banana workers in Colombia and Panama belong to unions; the figure is 40% in Guatemala. Only Costa Rica, at 6% unionisation, approaches Ecuador's minuscule 1% of unionised banana workers (just 1650 people).

Success for the workers on strike would more than double the number of banana workers who are unionised. It would deprive employers of the low-wage advantage they currently enjoy. It would also undermine the contract employment system, which is not as prevalent in other countries. All workers in the banana-producing countries would benefit if FENACLE wins its demands. All the banana-producing corporations have a stake in preventing that victory, not just Alvaro Noboa.

Child labour

The ones with the most at stake in the Noboa strike are the children of the strikers. According to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on child labour on Ecuadorian banana plantations, the average daily wage of a banana worker is US$5.44. This is 41 cents below the legal minimum. But the ministry of labour says it takes $288 a month to support a family or about $11.07 a day for a six-day week. The combined income of two working adults barely covers basic needs.

"Two-square-metre rooms with two sets of bunk beds, sleeping a total of eight people, are normal. There are no mattresses — workers have improvised with cardboard boxes not only as bedding but as storage, as there is no other furniture", Nimmo said.

Families need the income that children can bring in just to survive. As a 14-year-old banana worker told HRW investigators: "I have to work. There is no money."

The average age at which kids go to work on the plantations is 11. Ecuadorian law allows children between 14 and 17 to work with the permission of their parents; if they are 12 to 14 court authorisation is needed. None of the children interviewed by HRW had such authorisation.

Although the law also forbids employing minors in dangerous jobs, work on banana plantations exposes them to pesticides so hazardous that the Environmental Protection Agency bans them in the US. Two of them, diazinon and chlorpyrifos, are sprayed on plastic sheets which workers use to wrap the bunches. The EPA cautions that these chemicals are especially dangerous to children, even in low doses. Both are organophosphates, originally developed as nerve gas agents in World War II.

Workers also told of pesticides sprayed from planes while they laboured in the groves below. Fourteen-year old Diego Rosales told HRW: "When the plane passes, you keep working. When the water falls on you, you can feel it on your skin. You keep working."

Usually, when the children got sick from the chemicals, they went home and were back in the trees a day or two later.

Unions in the US have protested against the treatment of the strikers. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters approached the Costco grocery chain, which then sent a letter to Noboa expressing concern.

After a representative of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, Liz O'Connor, relayed news from the strikers after a visit to the plantations, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Jim Spinosa, head of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, wrote to Noboa as well. Support has come as well from the International Union of Foodworkers and the International Transport Federation.

From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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