Gender equity in the banana trade

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Women working in banana and other tropical fruit production across Latin America and West Africa are increasingly struggling against instability, inequality and discrimination in the workplace. Often working 14 hours a day without overtime pay, women lack the freedom to organise, without their rights being respected. Women are sacked for being pregnant, have no ante or post-natal maternity rights and many suffer sexual harassment in the workplace, while high levels of toxic agrochemical use puts pregnant women and nursing mothers at high risk of negative health impacts for themselves and their (unborn) children.
"The current instability of the labour market wears the face of a woman; it is our responsibility to fight to improve our working conditions to ensure that we are employed with decency and dignity from this day and onwards. Fátima Del Rosario Herrera Olea, trade union activist, SITAG-Peru

Strategic aims

Working for gender equity is among our core strategic aims, including to: 
  • Increase capacity of trade unions in producer countries to represent the demands of workers, particularly the rights of young workers, workplace gender issues (such as women’s employment and freedom from sexual harassment), and occupational health and safety.
  • Support the education and training of workers and their representatives on international labour rights, occupational health and safety, gender, and environmental issues.
We pursue these aims through our participation in the World Banana Forum, which brings together stakeholders from the whole banana production and distribution chain to work towards sustainability and achieve consensus on best practices in the banana industry. We also work with partner trade unions in Latin America and West Africa to help build the capacity of women to be part of the collective bargaining process. Our focus on the rights of women workers has, among other things, seen gender clauses integrated into collective bargaining agreements and increases in the numbers of women holding leadership roles in the trade unions.
You can read more about our work to address gender equity on the menu to the left. 

Action on gender equity

Our recent actions on gender equity include: 
  • Advocacy to improve labour legislation, particularly to protect women against sexual harassment and discrimination, and Health and Safety risks.
  • Working to ensure a proper gender dimension is integrated into collective bargaining and framework agreements with banana companies.
  • Calls for women to be offered more on the job training to build their skill base and open up their opportunities in the workplace. 
  • Raising awareness of the unfair balance of domestic work and persuading men that it is right for them to share the burden.
  • Working to educate and empower women workers, such as our work with unions in Cameroon (FAWU) and Ghana (GAWU) to build the skills of women activists to play a greater role within their unions and in social dialogue. 

Gender equity issues in the banana trade

Women workers’ rights

Women represent a small proportion of the workforce on Latin American plantations – as little as 7% - and are frequently hired on short-term contracts and are at constant risk of losing their jobs. Employers are often unwilling to provide maternity benefits, perceiving women as ‘high risk, high cost’ employees. In some Latin American countries women have to produce medical certificates proving they are not pregnant, or submit to pregnancy tests before they are given jobs. Pregnant women can be summarily sacked.

Gender pay gap

The cultural perception in Latin America that women lack the ability to undertake physically demanding or technically skilled roles, means they are often restricted to tasks within the ‘more controlled’ environment of the pack house. A lack of access to training for more skilled and better paid roles, leaves many women earning less than men. The situation for women workers in Africa is very much the same. 

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is commonplace and justified by some male banana and pineapple producers as ‘part of their culture’. COLSIBA (The Regional Coordinating Body of Latin American Banana & Agro-industrial Product Unions) campaigns to end such treatment of women, and was, for example, successful in getting Chiquita to introduce the first sexual harassment policy in the Latin American banana sector. 

Domestic violence

Unions are working with women members to make them realise that domestic violence is a matter for the police; that it is not a private problem. According to women organisers, “if he supports me, I belong to him, if he hits me it’s because I’ve done something to deserve it” was a common response. This is not acceptable and is slowly changing. In Honduras, for example, trade unions have successfully fought to introduce a new law against domestic violence and are campaigning to raise women’s awarness of the law and their rights.

Childcare and the division of domestic labour

A lack of childcare provision negatively impacts women workers, who have to take time off work to look after children. In Latin America, for example, the majority of women workers are single heads of households, meaning they have to rely upon family, neighbours and friends, or, in some cases have no choice but to leave children on their own. In addition to long working hours, domestic tasks mean women are working up to 18 hours per day, with negative effects on their health and well-being. 

Lack of union representation

For decades there has been a lack of female representation within Latin American banana workers unions. COLSIBA recognises that “men alone cannot fairly negotiate about certain elements of work on the plantations. Women also need a voice for their needs.” In 2013, COLSIBA elected Iris Munguia as Coordinator at COLSIBA, becoming the first woman to be elected to lead COLSIBA, and illustrating the great progress Latin American unions have made in terms of gender representation.
While in Honduras, Oneyda Galindo, president of the SITRASURCO, and first woman leader of a banana workers union, has said “we’re very proud to say that over half the members of the union are women…thanks to a lot of awareness-raising work.” 

Health issues

High levels of toxic agrochemical use in the fields and pack-houses causes women to suffer skin lesions, respiratory problems, cancers, miscarriages and birth defects in their children. There is often a lack of adequate medical equipment, meaning women have no access to essential services such as gynaecology and breast examination. Other health problems include backache and varicose veins caused by cramped conditions.
Wages are so low that women are often forced to stay out in the fields during aerial pesticide spraying because they can’t afford to lose the pay.