Keeping it Personal

9 05 2008

Here are 2 more stories from real banana workers.

“My name is Eduardo Hernandez.  During one of the union strikes that we had I was imprisoned for 16 days, and they accused me of being the union leader.  The imprisoned me together with a colleague, and I was in prison, in San Jose, for 16 days.  They tortured me there, asking me where we had the weapons, which was a pure fabrication.  They struck me and crushed my fingers.”

“My name is Angelita. I have eight children and am a single mother. I have worked for more than twenty years in the banana plantations of Chinandega, Nicaragua. One day I was fired and given minimal compensation of about $10 because they said I was a “trouble maker”. I was then put on a “black list” so none of the other farms would employ me. The reason for this? Simply that some time ago I had decided that I would join a local trade union, the Association of Farm Workers, to fight for my own and other workers’ labor rights. I do not feel well these days. I suspect that, like my friends, I am suffering from the effects of pesticides that were used by the Dole in the 1980s in my home country.”


Stories from banana workers

5 05 2008

These are real.  They are taken from accounts and interviews with banana workers in Central America.  I hope they can help to put this issue in a more personal light.

“My name is Concepcion.  I am now 65 years old.  I began working on the banana fincas at the age of 16, in 1950.  In 1967 I came here to the area around Guapiles and I worked at a number of farms; Santa Clara, San Rafael (where I was for 13 years), and Finca Jardin.  In 1986 I stopped working on the banana plantations, although I always tried to keep myself informed on how things were going in the banana plantations.  It’s because being a banana worker becomes ingrained and I was involved in the struggle almost all of my life.”

“The work was very hard.  There were some very big bunches, ones that you had up to 17 banana hands and weighed up to 150 pounds.  One was quite mistreated.  It’s not to give myself credit, but at this time it wasn’t just any man who was a bananero.”

A Global Fruit with Global Implications

22 04 2008

Today in my political science course on globalization, we had guest author Jamal Nassar to speak on his book, Globalization and Terrorism.  On page 19 of the book, Nassar uses a metaphor to describe the United States’ role in international affairs:

“Our world today is similar to a ship on the high seas.  On this global ship, there are people who live in first-class cabins, others in second, some in third, and many way at the bottom in fourth-class cabins.  Regardless of where we live, we need to be concerned about the well-being of those in the lower cabins.  If we allow those cabins to rut, rust, and leak, the whole ship will sink.  We in the United States of America do not live in first-class cabins.  We live in the captain’s cabin.  While the captain of the ship gets the luxury of the captain’s cabin, the captain also gets the responsibility for the well-being of the whole ship.  Many Americans want to be the captain of the ship, but they prefer not to take responsibility for the state of the global ship.  We cannot have it both ways.”

Nassar, in our discussion, went on to say that we are responsible to correct our government when it does wrong.  Currently, we are on the side of oppression and occupation in regions like Iraq, Israel and Central America.  Whether they do it in the War on Terror or on banana plantations, our government and corporations are in support of violations of human rights.  We have the luxury of democratic freedoms, but we also have the responsibility of being the global superpower.  We are in the driver’s seat.  Currently, we are repeatedly running over the rights of people and sometimes even the people themselves in the developing world.

We, the American voters, are the ones who give the United States its power.  We are responsible for its abuses.  While we likely do not individually support unjust exploitation and innocent deaths, our collective nation’s actions speak otherwise.  Ignorance and apathy do not relieve us of our responsibilities.  By not doing anything, we are condoning the actions of the government and corporate powers.  We have voted for our elected officials; now we must hold them accountable for their actions.  They are representative of our actions.

Fresh Del Monte, a company based in the United States, is responsible for the mistreatment, disease and death of thousands of banana plantation workers in Central America.  It is time we questioned why they can get away with such practices.  We have a choice.  We can vote with our dollars and buy fair trade.  We can speak out and educate our families and friends.  We can use our online resources to research the truth.  We can organize and empassion.  We can make a difference.

The hour is upon us.  Banana workers need our help.  We are in the captain’s cabin.  It’s time we are accountable for the global actions of our country. 


100th Monkey

22 04 2008

Social change.  It takes time at first.  But then, all of a sudden, after what seems like years of hopeless efforts, something happens and everything shifts all at once.  Society reaches its breaking point.  It can’t hold onto the madness of the current situation.  It all comes crashing down.

So it the story of the 100th monkey.

The Japanese monkey, Macaca fuscata, was observed in the wild for a period of about 30 years.  In 1952, on Koshima island, scientists conducted an experiment where they gave the monkeys sweet potatoes that were covered in sand.  The monkeys liked the sweet potatoes, but they didn’t like the sand.  An 18-month-old female monkey named Imo found the solution by washing her potatoes in a nearby stream before eating them.  She taught the trick to her mother.  Soon, her playmates learned the trick too, and they also taught their mothers.  Between 1952 and 1958, all the young monkeys learned to wash the sweet potatoes.  The adult monkeys who imitated their children also learned the trick, but other adults kept eating the sandy potatoes.

As the story goes, in the morning on a fall day in 1958, 99 monkeys were washing sweet potatoes.  Then that afternoon, the 100th monkey learned to wash her potatoes.  And by night fall, all the monkeys in the tribe were washing their sweet potatoes.  The added energy of the 100th monkey had tipped the scale and created an ideological breakthrough.

But the most stunning part was that not only did the entire tribe on Koshima island start washing its potatoes, but also did Japanese monkeys worldwide begin washing their potatoes.

This story demonstrates the power of one in the process of social change.  I have always enjoyed this tale.  I often feel that my actions do not have global reach, that I cannot make a difference in the world.  However, the 100th monkey inspires me to keep speaking up and acting out on behalf of my beliefs.  I have stopped buying bananas.  I have told my friends about my banana crusade, and I will continue to spread the word.  Maybe my friends and readers will tell their friends.  The movement will expand outward.  It is my hope, that one day, we will reach critical mass.  We will all be so strong in our beliefs that the world will shift.  Our cause will achieve global reach.  The big multinationals, like Fresh Del Monte, will be forced to change their ways or perish.

Social change, while sometimes slow and frustrating, can also be impacting and even irresistible.  Ideological movements have force behind them.  Don’t believe me?  Think Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez or Ghandi.  These are real examples.  I am no Ghandi.  I would never make that claim.  But people have power.  We can make a difference.  So please spread the word and keep fighting for the rights of the banana workers.  Perhaps you are the 100th monkey.

Unions Banned

21 04 2008

On the banana plantations, transnational companies violate the rights of workers to freely organize unions and to use collective bargaining to negotiate work conditions.  By hiring workers for less than 3 months, the companies bend and violate the Costa Rican law that gives long-term workers the right to unionize.  It takes 3 months of employment to be considered a long-term worker.  Further, because banana plantations provide employment for migrant workers, the Costa Rican government has restricted investigations into illegal union-blocking policies.

Solidarismo, a business-sponsored labor movement aimed at replacing traditional unions, is another hindrance to workers’ right to unionize.  The movement emphasizes cooperation between workers and employers, with membership open on both sides.  Because solidarismos are funded and managed by the companies, they support only company interests.

However, the biggest obstacle to forming unions is blacklists.  Thousands of migrant workers roam the plantations of Costa Rica but are unable to find work anywhere because they have been blacklisted in the banana industry.  The easiest way for a worker to be put on the black list is to call for improved working conditions or to have a history of unionization attempts.  When a person has grown up working on the banana plantations, plantation work is all they know.  They cannot afford to fight for labor rights and be put on the blacklist because it will likely mean permanent unemployment, extreme poverty or starvation.

Fear.  This is a driving force behind the success of multinational banana plantations.  Workers are afraid to speak out, afraid to fight for their rights, afraid to tell the truth.  The workers cannot afford to lose their jobs.  Del Monte can afford to fire them.  There are thousands of replacements available.  Job security can’t be found in the banana plantation dictionary.  It doesn’t exist. 

Banana Ballet

21 04 2008

This video is a quintessential example of America’s treatment of information about banana plantations and human rights violations.  If you were to close your eyes and listen solely to the music, you might assume that you were watching a happy, Latin ballet.  The opening welcomes amigos (friends) to the banana plantation.  But when you open your eyes, no one is dancing.  With sound off, it almost seems like the video is recorded in fast forward.  That’s how quickly to workers are moving, especially when they begin sorting and packing.  This is not rapid time.  This is the real pace of work.  The video is almost 4 minutes.  The workers do this for 14 hours a day.  The ending of the video is the most significant part.  The packer in the front keeps smiling at the camera.  While I don’t know him firsthand, I can bet that he isn’t actually glad to be there.  Workers are trained to appear happy when inspectors or reporters come to the plantations.  They are educated on how to answer questions and especially on how to lie.  If they tell the truth about their work conditions and treatment, they are fired.  So of course this worker is smiling for the camera.  Besides, it’s his Youtube debut.  He wants to make a good impression.

We’ve had our eyes closed on the banana industry for years.  We don’t want to see the truth about our beloved fruit.  And even when we do see it, we mask it with happy music and fake smiles.  But this is the reality: 

Banana plantations are exploitative.

They violate workers’ rights.

They cause cancer and disease.

They abuse, pollute, oppress and beat down. 

Open your eyes and turn off that happy music.  It is time we knew the truth.


Trapped in Banana Hell

19 04 2008

For people living in the banana regions of Costa Rica, the banana industry is practically the only option for work.  Many youths who have not graduated from high school begin working in the banana fields and continue to work on the plantations for the rest of their lives.  Because the plantations are owned by multinationals, like Del Monte in the United States, the local government does not see the tax revenues of the industry.  Due to a lack of funding and support, there is minimal investment in health, education, transportation and even electricity in the banana communities.

People working in the banana fields are usually driven to their work by a lack of economic choice.  They must work in the fields or let their families starve.  The majority of banana workers are made up of a migrant population that has been oppressed by a volatile combination of harsh government policies, insufficient income, and lack of opportunities.  They have been forced to leave their home countries and their farms due to a lack of livable income, only to find miserable conditions and mistreatment on the banana plantations.  The work conditions have caused the workers to feel a profound loss of their identity and an absence of sustainable life to call their own. 

The workers are suffering from an identity crisis.  They are simply numbers on the white board controlled by the inspectors.  They are nameless, replaceable, exploited, trapped, demeaned, guilty and impotent.  They are out of hope.  Mothers are making their children susceptible to illnesses caused by pesticides in an effort to put food on the table at night.  Husbands are so exhausted from 14-hours in the field that they have no energy for their wives.  Youth spend their days in the packing rooms, hidden away from social interaction and high school educations.  The banana plantations are all these people know.  Their entire lives are defined by an individual and collective sense of desperation.

Welcome to hell.

Day in and day out, this is their reality.

This is their home sweet home.


This is their final judgment.

This is their God, the oppressor.

Photos courtesy of Rhi Gutierrez