The good guide to: bananasHome » Latest issue » Good, issue 22 » The good guide to: bananas
The banana is almost the perfect fruit. Tasty nutritious and seedless, it comes ready wrapped in a colourful, easy-peel and biodegradable skin. So how do we tell the good bananas from the bad?
New Zealand imports more bananas per capita than any other country, and globally the banana’s popularity has created a trade worth about US$6 billion per year.
Big money tends to corrupt, and the banana trade is a case in point. The term ‘banana republic’ was coined to describe tropical countries whose political structures had been hijacked by those earning the most from the yellow fruit.
And so it goes: reports of low wages, poor working conditions and attacks on union leaders continue to the present day. Not to mention rainforest destruction, monoculture imposition and the use of pesticides, which threaten the environment and the health of plantation workers.
Sadly, there are no certified organic bananas in New Zealand. Biosecurity regulations require that most consignments of bananas are sprayed in order to ensure they don’t harbour pest species dangerous to our local ecology and agriculture. Fumigation means any certified organic bananas instantly lose their certification, so while retailers and producers may say their bananas are grown organically, they cannot describe them as ‘certified organic’.
Most of them would not qualify anyway. Historically, conventional banana plantations used two highly toxic pesticides, Paraquat and Terbufos, often sprayed from aircraft, exposing the workers in the process.
Gracio bananas are imported by wholesalers Glassfields from plantations in the Phillippines, which are operated by the Sumifru Corporation of Japan.
We could find no relevant published specific safeguards or monitoring systems relating to pesticide use, environmental damage or worker exploitation, apart from those stipulated by law.
Glassfields were unable to provide any information on the use of pesticides in the production of the bananas they sell. Glassfields directed us to a Sumifru promotional website, which provided no relevant additional information. Sumifru did not respond to our enquiries.
Bonita bananas are imported by Turners & Growers from the largest Ecuadorian conglomerate, Grupo Noboa.
Bonita is certified by GLOBALG.A.P for good agricultural practice, which includes standards for product, worker health and the environment, particularly pesticide safety.
According to Turners & Growers, Paraquat and Terbufos are not used on Bonita banana plantations. The company declined to name the pesticides that are in use or state whether or not they were applied by air.
New Zealand Dole
New Zealand Dole Ethical Choice bananas come from the Philippines.
Dole’s Ethical Choice scheme conforms to the SA8000 externally audited standard. Under this standard, young workers aged between 15 and 18 cannot work more than eight hours a day, or have a working day (including travel time) of more than ten hours. Overtime for adults cannot exceed 12 hours a week.
Wages must be deemed sufficient to meet basic needs and provide some discretionary income. Labour-only or piece work, where the company pays workers only per unit of production, is not allowed.
The scheme also complies with the ISO 14001 standard. This is a formal commitment by a company to improve its environmental performance by setting measurable goals.
Dole also displays the ISO 9002 certification on its website, but this standard is obsolete and was withdrawn in 2000 by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). According to a spokesperson from ISO’s Geneva office, it is “very strange that a company claims to conform to a standard which was withdrawn over ten years ago”.
Dole declined to clarify what pesticides, fungicides or herbicides are currently used in production. Company spokesman Steven Barton said: “This information is confidential now that we have begun the process to move to our ‘Natural Farming’ techniques using a licensed and trademarked process. The process was developed using microbes readily found in our organic compost and by spraying onto the plants.”
According to Dole this new approach would reduce the need for conventional spraying and the use of carbon-based chemicals such as organophosphates. The company says it will eventually phase out their use altogether, and in the meantime Paraquat and Terbufos are not used.
All Good Bananas
All Good Bananas are imported from the El Guabo co-operative in Ecuador.
Fairtrade certified. This guarantees a minimum price of at least US$8.20 per 18.4kgs. It also provides premium payments of an additional US$1 per 18.4kgs to be used to fund social and economic development projects.
Members of the El Guabo Association have voted to spend 20 percent of the premium payments on infrastructure improvements such as packing stations and warehouses. The remaining 80 percent is spent on education, health care, environmental and social programmes.
The Fairtrade Labelling Organizations prohibit the use of harmful herbicides and fungicides, including Paraquat, DBCP (dibromochloropropane) and Terbufos. A full list of prohibited materials is available at www.fairtrade.net (Click on 'Standards', then 'Generic standards', then 'Prohibited materials' to access the list).
Workers’ rights in the Philippines
The Labour Code of the Philippines bans ‘recruitment fees’ and making high-interest loans to workers. Children under the age of 15 cannot be employed, unless they’re in a formal apprenticeship, in which case they can be 14. The working day is eight hours, excluding a compulsory one-hour lunch break. Overtime must be paid as time and a quarter, or time plus 30 percent on rest days and holidays.
However, any employee may be required to work overtime to prevent loss or damage to perishable goods, such as bananas. This can override the normal provision for one day off in every seven.
Filipino workers are entitled to up to ten statutory days’ holiday a year, and an additional five once they’ve worked for more than a year. Sex discrimination is outlawed and six weeks’ paid maternity leave is available for pregnant women who have worked at least six of the previous 12 months.
Workers have the right to form unions, cannot be dismissed without just cause, and can leave by giving a month’s notice, or immediately in the case of ill treatment or abuse.
Every employer must provide free basic medical and dental care and assist in the establishment and operation of adult education programmes for their workers. Crucially, all contracted employees and casual labour must be treated in the same way as permanently employed labour.
On the other hand, the legal minimum daily wage is low, varying from 230-274 pesos, depending on the area. That’s about NZ$6.70-NZ$7.98 a day. To put that in perspective, that’s about what I earn for writing this sentence.
Workers’ rights in Ecuador
A devastating 2002 Human Rights Watch report exposed the shocking extent of child labour in Ecuador's banana industry. Thankfully, this has had some effect, with Ecuador’s Ministry of Labour enforcing new laws prohibiting the employment of children under 15 years. The new rules also limit those under 18 to six hours’ work a day, five days a week, and stipulate that they must have access to education.
More recently Ecuadorians voted overwhelmingly in favour of a proposal that employers must register all workers at Ecuador's Social Security Institute. If enforced, this would help close loopholes exploited by employers of casual labour. The monthly minimum wage is currently about US$240 (NZ$300).