Banana workers, including children as young as eight years old, suffer from a range of abuses on plantations in Ecuador whose government fails to enforce international labor standards or even its own national labor code, according to a report released in Washington Thursday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The three big United States-based multinationals which buy about 25 percent of Ecuador's banana exports -- Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita -- do not appear to be enforcing their own codes of conduct which they say they apply to banana producers in Ecuador and other banana-producing countries, according to the 140-page report, 'Tainted Harvest: Child Labor and Obstacles to Organizing in Ecuador's Banana Plantations.'
"Banana-exporting companies may tell you they're not responsible for labor abuses," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of HRW's Americas division. "But they have financial power and could use it to ensure respect for workers' rights. They just don't."
Ecuador exports more bananas than any other country and accounts for a total of about 28 percent of all bananas that are traded across international borders. One in every four bananas consumed in the U.S. was grown in one of three of Ecuador's Pacific provinces where a combination of rich soil and humid tropical climate make them ideal for year-round banana cultivation.
The report, which was based on a three-week on-site investigation of labor conditions in the banana plantations, found serious violations of labor rights in both the plantations and packing houses.
Child labor is rampant in the banana sector, according to the report, which blamed plantation owners for paying adult workers less than the minimum wage of US$5.85 a day, or $117 a month, plus health insurance. HRW found that the average salary amounted to only $5.44 a day with no insurance.
The result is that two working adults in a family of four often make less than the almost $300 a month that Ecuador's labor ministry estimates is the basic cost of living in the banana-producing region.
Of the 45 children interviewed by HRW for the report, all but four began working in the banana plantations or packing houses between the ages of eight and 13, with most of them starting aged 10 or 11. Their average workday lasted 12 hours, and fewer than 40 percent of the children were still in school by the time they turned 14, despite provisions in Ecuadorian law outlawing the employment of children which interferes with their right to an education.
The conditions in which the children worked, moreover, were dangerous, particularly their exposure to pesticides -- often sprayed from aircraft while the children are still in the fields -- in most cases, without their being provided any protective gear. As a result, the children interviewed said they suffered a variety of symptoms related to dangerous exposure to pesticides, including headaches, dizziness, stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, trembling and shaking, itching, burning nostrils and red yes, fatigue, and aching bones.
Ecuadorian laws aimed at preventing child labor are not being enforced in the banana sector, the report found. A similar lack of legal protection applied to adult workers only one percent of whom were affiliated with workers' unions, a far lower rate than for any Central American banana-exporting country.
The low rate resulted from an Ecuadorian law that permits employers who fire workers for engaging in organizing activity to pay a small fine rather than reinstate the workers. In addition, employers can evade requirements to provide benefits guaranteed to full-time workers under Ecuador's labor law by using subcontractors to "employ" them or hiring "permanent temporary" workers on a series of short-term labor contracts, according to the report.
The employers were not multinational companies like Dole and Chiquita, or even the two major national banana-exporting companies in Ecuador, Noboa and Rey Banano del Pacifico (Reybanpac). Instead, they were the owners of the plantations which range in size from small plots of only one acre to as much as 1,000 acres.
Despite their own codes of conduct and commitments to uphold local laws and core international labor rights, the U.S.-based multinationals that deal with these owners, according to the report, have disclaimed "any obligation to demand respect for workers' rights on the plantations from which they buy their bananas."
Dole, which bought 31 percent of its bananas in Ecuador in 2000, declined to provide any information to HRW about its relationship with specific plantations on which most of the children interviewed for the study claim to have worked.
Dole's web site states that the company "does not knowingly purchase products from any commercial producers employing minors."
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