Blood On The Bananas
by David Bacon
SAN FRANCISCO, CA (6/12/02) -- Bonita, the word for beautiful in Spanish, is not a bad description for the nearly flawless fruit in the banana bins at Costco and many other fruit and vegetable markets across the country. It is also the actual name on the paper label sticking to millions of the yellow bunches themselves.
That Bonita label belongs to Alfredo Noboa, the largest banana exporter in Ecuador, which exports more to the US than any other country. But Bonita is not the word used by hundreds of workers to describe their experience growing, harvesting and packing that perfect fruit;
Last April 1400 of them organized 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. They 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.
Hardly any of the 150,000 banana workers in Ecuador, the largest banana workforce in Latin America, have a union, and company reaction was swift. Some 124 workers were fired almost immediately. Other workers on temporary contract were told that there was no more work. Efforts to negotiate with Noboa got nowhere, and after three more union activists were fired, the workers walked out on strike on May 6.
Nine days later, in the evening of May 15, 400 hooded men armed with rifles arrived at one of the struck 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 organization 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] in truckloads 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. The leg of 26-year old Mauro Romero 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, and strikebreakers brought in to restart production.
The Noboa name holds the power in Ecuador. Alvaro Noboa is a candidate for President in elections that will replace the current president, Gustavo Noboa (not a direct relation.) According to Nimmo, "one man proudly paraded around in an Alvaro Noboa "Adelante, adelante" campaign T-shirt." Los Alamos Hacienda workers say they've been told, on threat of being fired, to join their employer's political party, the PRIAN.
Xavier Monge, a spokesperson for the Exportadora Bananera Noboa, told reporters on June 1st that the company had resumed harvesting bananas on the plantations, and that the strike was over. The Federacion Nacional de Campesinos Libres del Ecuador, to which the strikers' unions belong, however, says 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 a US supermarket or to a school or other institution, making the country by far the largest source for US consumers. Noboa is the biggest producer, followed by a consortium called La Favorita, and then the US companies Chiquita (United Brands), Dole Farming Company, and Del Monte. Together, these companies control the world market in bananas. In the last decade, they've shifted much of their production to Ecuador, which is now the world's largest exporter. The next four are Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica.
Ecuador's non-union status is the big attraction. Over 90% of the banana workers in Colombia and Panama belong to unions, and 40% in Guatemala. Only Costa Rica's 6% approaches Ecuador's miniscule 1% of banana workers (1650 people) who are organized.
Success in the current strike would do more than double Ecuador's banana union membership. It would also deprive its employers of the low-wage advantage they currently enjoy. Unions would also threaten the advantages they derive from their contracting system, which is not as prevalent in other countries. So while the workers of all the banana-producing countries would benefit if FENACLE wins its strike, all the producers have a stake in preventing it, not just Alvaro Noboa.
The ones with the most at stake in the Noboa strike are the children of the strikers. According to a recent report on child labor on Ecuadorian banana plantations by Human Rights Watch, the average daily wage of a banana worker is $5.44. This is 41¢ below the legal minimum. But the Ministry of Labor 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.
Jan Nimmo says, "two square meter rooms with two sets of bunk beds, sleeping a total of eight people, are normal. There are no mattresses - workers have improvised with the "Bonita" cardboard boxes not only as bedding but as storage, as there is no other furniture."
In effect, families need the income that children can bring in, just to survive. A fourteen-year old banana worker told investigators that "I have to work. There is no money." The average age at which kids went to work was eleven.
Ecuadorian law allows children between 14 and 17 to work with the permission of their parents, and from 12 to 14 with a court authorization. None of the interviewed children had such an authorization.
Although the law also forbids employing minors in dangerous jobs, work on banana plantations exposes them to pesticides so hazardous that the EPA bans them in the United States. Two of them, diazinon and chlorpyrifos, are sprayed on plastic sheets which workers use to wrap the bunches. The EPA cautions that they're especially dangerous to children, even in low doses. Both are organophosphates, originally developed as nerve gas agents in World War Two.
Workers also told of pesticides sprayed from airplanes while they labored in the groves below. One fourteen-year old, Diego Rosales, told HRW that "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 are protesting the treatment of the strikers. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters approached the Costco grocery chain, which 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 Warehousee Union, wrote Noboa as well. In May, Congressmembers Jan Schakowsky and George Miller sent their assistants to investigate the situation on the Hacienda Los Alamos plantations, and meet with Noboa officials. Support has come as well from the International Union of Foodworkers and the International Transport Federation.
The final word, however, may come from US consumers, who may begin to treat Bonita with the same disdain they reserved for table grapes two decades ago, for much the same reason.
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