It was always a great challenge for my mother to coax my younger self into eating fruits and vegetables. These days, I am not a particularly picky eater. After learning to subtly incorporate fruits into my favorite foods, I now put blueberries in my pancakes and strawberries in my yogurt with glee. But I once had a terrible aversion to fruits and vegetables, save one — the banana. To this day, my love for bananas far surpasses my appreciation for any other fruit.
The banana plant grows quickly and cheaply in tropical areas — like those located in South and Central America. Even though my sunny home of South Florida sees the occasional banana plant (which flowers but is not quite a tree), it is difficult to produce bananas in the majority of the United States. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. economy responded to the domestic demand for bananas by importing the fruit from the countries where it grew naturally. Corporations such as United Fruit Company and Cuyamel Fruit Company — ancestors to the now ubiquitous Chiquita banana — established strong ties with Latin American governments in exchange for hefty loans and expansive land ownership.
In Costa Rica alone, thousands of workers died from disease or the effects of a hostile climate during the construction of infrastructure to support the U.S.’s burgeoning banana imports. It was during this time that the term “banana republic” was coined, which refers to a country that has an economy dependent on the export of a single, usually agricultural, good.
At Trader Joe’s in the U.S., bananas are priced at 19 cents a pop. Meanwhile, for many Latin American countries, the export of bananas — and the intensive manual labor that allows it — is economically essential yet deeply exploitative. Banana farm workers earn a meager living and often face hostile environmental and economic conditions where they work. The tropical heat is brutal and the hours are long, and Chiquita’s program for workers includes a stipulation that if they quit or are fired, Chiquita can seize their home. Female laborers often face sexual harassment or threats of rape from their superiors, and the threat of being fired is often sufficient to prevent anyone from speaking out or resisting.
For those who work on the lower rungs of the banana industry in Latin America today, there is little opportunity for redress. Labor inspections are spotty at best, largely because government officials are overburdened with huge caseloads and few financial resources. Colombia even closed its Labor Ministry from 2002 to 2011.
There is little hope that the industry will properly regulate itself and ensure human rights standards for its own workers. In the decades since the inception of corporations like Chiquita, organizations such as Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) have even lept at the opportunity to use widespread worker abuse for profit.
In a State Department-funded report released during the Obama administration, BSR analysts chirped about the need for “worker empowerment” in Honduran banana farms such as Finca Tropical. “Plantation owners,” the report sagely suggests, are often pressured by international certifications to facilitate a “one-sided discourse where managers fail to prompt worker participation.” We’re looking at a business that brands itself on socially-conscious consumerism but refuses to criticize the evident exploitation of its clients’ workers.
Perhaps the biggest concern that still remains 10 years after the report’s release: What does a huge corporation like Chiquita really do when workers come to their managers with a request to be paid more than $14 for 12 hours of high-risk intensive labor?
So, what should we do as U.S. consumers? Should we stop eating bananas? That’s one potential way to personally protest the injustice that laborers face. Still, the individual choice to avoid bananas won’t break the supply chain or resolve the business model that has perpetuated exploitation in the first place. Maybe I’m biased because I really do love bananas, but to me, the problem lies not with the fruit but the structures that commodify and restrict it.
There are plenty of organizations that are passionate about the fight against worker abuse, especially that which occurs in Latin America today. Human rights-focused legal organizations have engaged in the fight against corruption in corporations like Chiquita, and many agricultural workers do claim membership in unions despite their employers’ best attempts to silence them. Supporting these groups won’t promise immediate and perfect resolution to the dangers that workers face in Latin American banana farms, but it is certainly a start.
Allison Pujol can be reached at email@example.com.