Ecuador exports more than four million tonnes of bananas yearly, making it the biggest producer of the world’s most popular fruit. Most of Ecuador’s bananas are grown on private, medium-sized plantations, effectively controlled by a few huge companies, namely US-owned Dole and Chiquita, Del Monte and Ecuador’s own Noboa. With an 18-kilogram box of fresh-picked plantation bananas selling for $3–4, the trade is a highly profitable business.
Ecuador’s extraordinary success in this sector is due in large part to the appalling pay and working conditions of its labourers, who are among the worst paid in the world. For a full day’s labour (12–15hr), the typical banana worker can expect a salary of just a few dollars, perhaps enough to buy two or three bunches of the fruit in a Western supermarket. Such meagre wages also have to cover outlay for the workers’ own tools, uniforms, transport to the plantations and drugs should they fall ill or have an on-site accident. Most can’t afford housing and must share small rooms on the estates or live in squalid, jerry-built shacks.
Only one percent of the country’s 250,000-strong workforce is unionized and most workers are effectively denied the right to form unions or bargain collectively; instant dismissals are common for any involvement.
There are more than three hundred varieties of banana, but the most commonly grown is the Cavendish. Since all Cavendish plants come from the same genetic source and are cultivated in close proximity to one another, pests, mould and disease can quickly wipe out a plantation, so the crops must be regularly sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals. Many workers complain of pesticide poisoning; throughout the 1990s Ecuadorian crops were treated with DBCP, a highly toxic chemical thought to cause birth defects, infertility and liver damage.
To compete with Ecuador, other countries’ producers are forced either to degrade conditions for their own workforce or relocate – in other words, Ecuador is winning the race to the bottom. Supermarkets seem content to turn a blind eye to workers’ low pay, non-existent welfare and even child labour, which has been documented on Ecuadorian plantations. Consumer awareness is one way to counter such corporate inaction, as is the use of alternative products such as organic and fair-trade bananas, which give workers a much better deal. In Machala, UROCAL is the organization most involved with such projects and staff are happy to show visitors around its members’ farms, as long as you cover any costs incurred and preferably make a donation for their time. Get in touch at e[email protected] or e[email protected]