According to Fátima Del Rosario Herrera Olea, trade union activist, SITAG-Peru, female banana and agro-industrial workers throughout Latin America face a constant struggle against instability, inequality and discrimination in the workplace. Fátima reports that women often work a 14 hour day without overtime and that they do not have the freedom to organise themselves into a trade union. Furthermore, women are frequently sacked for being pregnant, they have no ante- or post-natal maternity rights and many suffer sexual harassment in the workplace.
She states that: “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."
Over the last 15 years, the proportion of female workers on Latin American banana plantations has fallen by 60%, so that they now make up 7% of the workforce. In Costa Rica the figure is just 5%. This is partly because employers are unwilling to provide maternity benefits and perceive women as ‘high risk, high cost’ employees. In Costa Rica and Peru, women have to produce medical certificates proving they are not pregnant before they are given jobs, and pregnant women are summarily sacked.
In Ecuador, the world’s largest banana producing country, women also form just 5% of the workforce for similar reasons. Women workers face discrimination, harassment, and multiple health and safety risks, and are often unaware of their rights and how to defend them. In Latin America, there is a cultural perception that women lack the ability to undertake physically demanding and technically skilled roles in the workplaces, meaning that they are often restricted to working in packing houses. This also limits the amount they can earn compared to other workers in the banana industry. FENACLE, Ecuador’s National Federation of Agro-industrial Workers and Small Farmers, is working hard to improve this situation.
The use of toxic chemicals 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.
Mireya Rodriguez, coordinator of the Latin American Banana Workers’ Unions (COLSIBA) Women’s Committee, based in Costa Rica, said: “In the packing plants we work amongst big pools of water that are full of fungicide and pesticides. The temperatures are between 35 and 40 degrees centigrade so the working environment is always humid and suffocating.”
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.
Sexual harassment is common in the workplace and justified by some banana producers as ‘part of their culture’. COLSIBA (the Regional Coordinating Body of Latin American Banana and Agro-Industrial Product Unions) campaigns to end the abuse of female workers, and is calling on all fruit companies to accept their responsibility to challenge discrimination and harassment. It was successful in introducing the first sexual harassment policy in the Latin American banana sector.
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. In Honduras, trade unions have successfully fought to introduce a new law against domestic violence and are campaigning to make women aware of the law and their rights.
Childcare and the division of domestic labour
The majority of women workers are single heads of households. Childcare provision on plantations is almost non-existent, which means women have to rely upon family, neighbours and friends, but in some cases have no choice but to leave children on their own. Women often can’t afford to send all or any of their children to school. In addition to long working hours, domestic tasks mean women are working up to 18 hours per day, with negative effects on health and well-being.
Lack of union representation
For decades there has been a lack of female representation within Latin American banana workers unions. Recent achievements include the recognition of a new Honduran banana workers’ union, SITRASURCO, the first in Latin America to be led by a woman (Oneyda Galindo is president of the new union).
Photo: Women workers on the GEL plantation, Ghana, 2012