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Yellow Perils


new internationalist
issue 225 - November 1991

Yellow perils
We expect our bananas to be beautiful
and blemish-free. But how does that expectation affect the
lives of banana workers? Ramon Isberto talks to people on
a Philippine plantation about their life and work.

[image, unknown] It is a leisurely two-hour drive from the southern Philippines city of Davao to the 16 square kilometres of banana farms run by Dole Philippines, local subsidiary of the US food giant Castle and Cooke. The last 30 minutes of the ride grinds through dusty gravel roads that cut deep into a forest of banana trees planted on the fertile lowlands of Mindanao island.

Most of the 2,000 or so banana workers live right inside this human-made forest, either in clusters of small wooden homes or in crowded bunkhouses, surrounded by fruit trees (but thankfully no bananas).

Compared with the landless poor of Mindanao, the banana workers are not badly off. Their regular income allows some security. But the work is tough. Their lives are dominated by the back-breaking, hazardous task of cultivating and harvesting the bananas. It is, the workers say with much irony, like caring for an infant.

'The bananas here are better loved and cared for than the workers,' says Connie Actub, health-and-safety officer with the National Federation of Labour, a militant trade union that has, against huge odds, organized farm workers here. 'Every possible step is taken to keep the harvested fruits from suffering the slightest bruise,' she says. 'That is hardly how the workers are treated.'

To achieve the unblemished fruits demanded by the world market, workers must constantly guard against bruising. The importance of this is highlighted by the vocabulary used in the trade to describe the different scars on the fruit.

'First there are point scars,' explains Yolanda Martinez, a supervisor in the packing plant. 'They occur when the tip rubs against the skin of other bananas,' she adds, picking up one of the greenish fruits to show what she means. 'Next are maturity stains, sunburns and latex stains from plant sap.'

Yolanda seems a natural leader. There is a calm, unhurried firmness in her gestures and movements. She is tough. She has to be. 'We even have things called dust bruises which are caused, believe it or not, by dust rubbing against the banana skin.'

Fruit scars are also caused by pests. To prevent this, banana plantations use the most potent brew of pesticides and fungicides in Philippine farming. A 1984 Labour Ministry study showed that the banana sector consumes 80 per cent of the herbicides and 90 per cent of the fungicides used in the country. Banana plantations are also allowed by the Government to apply hazardous pesticides such as Paraquat, Mocap and Furadan which are not permitted on other crops.

There are mounting fears that over two decades' heavy use of toxic agricultural chemicals may soon produce a wicked backlash. Trade-union organizers who have long focused on such basic labour issues as wages and benefits in their dealings with Dole and the other big banana transnational, Del Monte, are now paying more attention to health-and-safety concerns.

'When we started our health-and-safety programme five years ago the workers did not believe us when we said the chemicals they were handling every day were dangerous,' explains Actub. 'They even told us that the pesticides they sprayed on the bananas cured small sores on their arms.

But attitudes have changed as tell-tale signs of ecological abuse and health hazards have increased in recent years. With the heavy use of chemicals on the soil, workers are becoming uneasy about the purity of underground water they use for drinking. And the direct effects on people are marked.

'We use Nematicides against worm pests,' says tractor driver Joel de Asis. 'We spread the red granules on the ground. When it's hot the chemicals give off a terrible smell. The stink is so bad it makes your head spin and some people vomit.'

Perhaps even worse are the blue plastic bags used to cover the bananas while they are ripening on the stem. These are laced with an insecticide called Chorpyrifos, classified 'moderately hazardous' by the World Health Organization. When the bag is opened, dust particles fly everywhere and workers inhale large amounts.

People are also exposed to large amounts of pesticides in the packing plants. 'All the chemicals used in the field end up in here,' points out Yolanda Martinez. 'Freshly harvested bananas are first placed in large water tanks to wash off the chemicals. Many workers who handle the bananas in these tanks find their fingernails become discoloured - or even fall off,' she says, opening her hands in explanation.

You sense the workers' love-hate relationship with the fruit in the way they tend to identify their own ailments as banana diseases. For instance, bananas are sometimes ravaged by 'Sigatoka disease' which lays ugly rashes on the leaves. Workers joke that they too suffer from this disease. For them, the symptoms are white spots on the back of the neck and head. They look like ringworm marks and are itchy and sore.

Workers are worried because they have few of the safety devices prescribed under government safety regulations such as rubber gloves and boots, head coverings, full-body coveralls, respirators and rubber boots.

They often end up providing their own protection, which can do more harm than good. 'With face masks, for instance, what's needed are respirators with replaceable activated charcoal as filters,' explains Connie Actub. 'But the Company says these are too expensive. So workers use foam masks instead, which make things worse because the foam absorbs the chemicals and the workers inhale them even more.

Ben Pinchon joins us. His job is to spray emerging banana fruit with pesticides. He carries a 20-kilogram container of chemicals on his back. He is supposed to have a face mask, rubber gloves and boots.

'I have none of these,' he shrugs. 'At the moment my health is OK,' adds this father of nine children. 'I'm still quite young at 47 but wait till I get past 50. Then I'll get all sorts of illnesses.'

People on the plantations blame the lack of safety equipment on the peculiar contract arrangement that Dole applies here. Dole grows bananas on its own directly managed plantation in Panabo. But its most profitable farms appear to be the 10 'collective farms' which it put together in the mid-1970s through contracts with over 200 small landowners. Technically workers on these are employed not by Dole but by the small farmers; in practice they are under the company's control.

Yolanda Martinez's mother, Esperanza, is one of these small farmers. After her husband died she was left with a 15-hectare farm. Like everyone else in the area, Esperanza planted the land to rice, corn and abacca (Manila hemp, a fibre produced from a type of banana and sold for cash). When Dole came along and offered her what seemed a very lucrative deal to plant bananas for export on her farm, she signed up, along with many other small farmers. Today, she is deep in debt to Dole for fertilizer and other 'services'. Many farmers who used to grow food are in the same situation.

Workers get paid different rates. 'We are doing exactly the same work as a regular Dole employee. But we are paid only 77 pesos ($2.75) a day compared with 125 pesos for regular employees,' says Martinez. 'This way the company gets the control it wants but also avoids what it does not want - the responsibility of giving workers decent wages and the necessary safety equipment.'

Despite the hardships, the bayanihan or co-operative spirit is alive and well on the plantations. People keep the tradition of holding fiestas once a year. Groups of families contribute savings to a kitty which is spent on a cow or some pigs for roasting, washed down with cheap gin. Once the festivities are over the saving starts again for next year - and so does the ministering to that tender infant, the banana.

Ramon Isberto is a journalist with Inter Press Services in the Philippines.


Banana-boat diplomacy

CHIOCITA BANANA 45 rpm When Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda hit the US in the late 1930s she caused a storm. Dressed in outrageous costumes, topped with hats featuring bananas and other exotic fruit, she sang and danced her way to Hollywood stardom.

While she was best known for her gutsy comic performances she played a part also in a serious political drama: the realignment of American power in the Western hemisphere. Carmen Miranda's movies helped make Latin America safe for the US's banana companies at a time when its imperialism was attracting wider criticism.

Between 1880 and 1930 the US colonized or invaded Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Nicaragua. Each produced plantation crops - bananas, sugar, coffee and pineapples - that the US was ready to fight for.

But as gunboat diplomacy became less acceptable, more subtle means were sought to control Latin America. As part of Roosevelt's 'Good Neighbour' policy, co-operation replaced overt militarism. For the Latin American governments which had been alienated by Uncle Sam's aggression were precisely those which US business would now have to woo if the country was to climb out of the Depression.

So, how to keep the Latin Americans in line? How to encourage US investment south of the border and keep ahead of the British, French and Dutch in the regional commodities race?

Carmen Miranda paved the way for tourism and investment. Her films such as 1940's Down Argentine Way showed South Americans as warm and friendly people, welcoming US dollars with a kiss. Her image helped make exotic fruits such as bananas part of the wholesome diet of Middle America, so expanding sales and increasing US investment in a crop that had only come to the Americas with the slaves.

The United Fruit Company, one of the biggest growers, made its own dazzling contribution to the new banana-consciousness: 'Chiquita Banana'. Inspired by Carmen Miranda's screen success, advertisers created a half-banana, half-woman cartoon character who sang a jingle to sell her fruit.

On the plantations, far away from Chiquita Banana's happy, wholesome ditty, the sweat and toil produced a sadder song. Wretched conditions affect both men and women in the banana industry, but while women prepare and pack the bunches of fruit for export, men do the machete wielding. The flip side of Chiquita Banana's song is that of the banana cutter:
Praise God an' my big right han'
I will live an' die a banana man.

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New Internationalist issue 225 magazine cover This article is from the November 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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