Global Policy Forum

How Fairtrade Bananas are Failing Migrant Workers

In the Dominican Republic, the Fairtrade banana industry is reliant on Haitian migrant workers who are paid below living wages and have no access to social security. More than half of the country’s bananas are exported the UK, where supermarkets are the most powerful actors along the supply chain and make high profits based on unsustainably low prices that they pay to suppliers. While fair trade standards are designed to ensure that producers from developing countries have long-term security, in practice, the standards are not helping migrant workers to earn a fair salary and decent living conditions.

By Tom Levitt

May 28, 2012

Like many young Dominicans, Federico left for the US when he finished school to look for work, ending up in a Spanish store in New York. After 20 years working seven days a week he grew tired of the long hours and yearned for his homeland and the tropical climate of the Caribbean.

He had heard about the booming banana trade with the export market growing fast, a cheap and plentiful workforce, and land and water in abundance. It seemed like an ideal opportunity, with money to be made for entrepreneurs willing to set up a plantation. Today he is half way towards his dream, 35 hectares of indigenous forest have been cleared with half already planted with banana trees. The other half will be up and running later this year, together with a new building to wash and pack the harvested bananas.

Not far away Jan Luis Moneta is still waiting for his dream: a work visa. He migrated from Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, when he was 14 years old. After 30 years working on banana plantations he is still classed as an illegal worker. With his daily wage he cannot afford to live in anything more than a corrugated iron hut, with no water, toilet facilities or electricity.

Jan Luis is just one of many thousands of 'invisible' Haitian migrants working in the banana sector, where they make up an estimated 90 per cent of the total workforce [the government says the figure is 66 per cent]. Union activists told the Ecologist that 90-95 per cent of them are working in the country illegally.

Although their stories are wildly different, both Federico and Jan Luis have together helped fuel the Dominican Republic's banana boom. The country is the UK's biggest supplier in value terms, with more than half of all their bananas exported to our shores. The majority of these are Fairtrade and/or organic sold in Asda, the Co-op, M&S, Sainsburys and Waitrose. Despite the economic downturn, overall Fairtrade sales in the UK grew by 12 per cent in 2011.

An estimated 60 per cent of banana production in the country is now certified organic and a quarter certified Fairtrade. Despite this progress, the industry the Ecologist saw in the country was still one reliant on a migrant workforce paid poverty wages, living in slums and with no legal status. What's more, in an effort to tackle criticism of its treatment of illegal workers, the Dominican Republic government is now planning to force many of these migrants underpinning the banana industry to leave the country.

Lying hidden off a main road, around 1,000 Haitian migrants live crowded together in a community of corrugated iron shacks. Most of them are young and male, some have families but no one has water, toilets or electricity. Some of them have jobs. Some don't. Of the ones that do, nearly all work on banana plantations, including for a major organic company.

Most of the workers get 250 to 300 pesos a day when they work (about £4). 'It is barely enough to eat,' a group of young men tell us. 'It allows us one meal a day of beans and rice but is not enough to rent a house or look after a family.'

Nearby, off a main road near the town of Mao in Valverde, in another community of mainly wooden huts, live around 130 Haitian migrants. One of them, a 34-year-old Haitian migrant Sabin James, told us he works on an organic plantation and after 15 years in the country is still trying to get legal status.

Even though he gets paid 300 pesos, Sabin can't afford to buy a US$225 (8,800 pesos) passport that would give him access to social security. His company offers help to apply for one but won't help him pay for it. 'They say that they are helping us but they know it's no help at all," says Sabin.

'The companies don't want to know about workers or bother themselves with how much they earn, where they live or what they eat,' says Padre Regino Martinez, director of Asomilin (Solidarity Association of Migrant Workers in the Northwest Region). His organisation has been helping migrants get passports at a reduced cost of US$140 and overcoming their fears of being deported if they try and apply.

Padre says Dominican workers don't normally get paid more but were given fixed contracts and the opportunity for promotion to higher paid positions, which Haitians never occupied, leaving them trapped in poverty.

'They don't have enough to cover the costs of living. And have no way of getting a higher salary to rent a home or buy a visa or passport. No power to negotiate with plantation owners. There are plenty of workers who need a job, so they are all too scared to stand up to employers,' he says.

Another migrant, Emmantel Audige was one of a number of workers we met living near the Haitian border and is employed on a Fairtrade certified banana plantation. He told us that he and other migrants had signed a contract for eight hours a day but actually worked six am to five pm without rest or overtime and for wages of no more than the average 250 pesos reported by non-Fairtrade workers. He had been in the country for 11 years but was still classed as an illegal worker, with no rights to social security.

According to the Fairtrade Foundation the premium consumers pay for Fairtrade bananas is, in some cases, being used to help migrants get passports and working visas, however, Emmantel says he does not know what the premium gets spent on. He and other migrants would like to have access to a healthcare centre to deal with work injuries and for use by their families.

On his organic farm in the north-west of the Dominican Republic, Federico, who hopes to be certified Fairtrade, admits that some of his workers are illegal migrants with no work permits. He uses around 40 workers on day-to-day contracts, although he is not sure about where they live or their living conditions. He says his farm does not have enough money yet to help workers get visas or passports.

The Fairtrade Foundation in the UK acknowledges that migrant workers in Dominican Republic's banana industry need help in getting better housing and legal status. It says many of the small-scale producers are often disadvantaged themselves and it takes time for them to assume more responsibility for the living conditions of migrant workers.

Trade union groups in the Dominican Republic say Fairtrade standards do not do enough to help migrant workers. 'There is no doubt that they are improving international trade but it isn't helping migrant workers to earn a fair salary,' says Luciano Robles, from the Trade Union Autonomous Federation (CASC). 'International standards need to be adapted to local situations.'

The Fairtrade Foundation says calls for using the Fairtrade premium to subsidise migrant workers' wages may undermine the responsibility of farm owners and employers to tackle the 'living wage' issue.

It points the blame, in part, at the continual use of bananas in price wars between supermarkets, saying it has devalued the fruit in the eyes of the consumer and left producers with low returns, even in the Fairtrade sector, which has to remain competitive against conventional alternatives.

Campaigners are hoping the new supermarket watchdog, the Groceries Code Adjudicator, will help stop supermarkets pressurising their suppliers. 'Supermarkets are the most powerful actors along supply chains and make vast profits however the unsustainably low prices they pay to suppliers can leave the workers who plant, harvest and pack our food in poverty,' says Banana Link campaigner Anna Cooper.

There are also fears many illegal Haitian migrants could be expelled under new government rules that state at least 80 per cent of a firm's employees must be Dominican - a figure at odds with the reality of the migrant-dominated banana industry. Government officials told the Ecologist this was to 'regularise' the workforce and ensure Haitians were legal citizens in the country. But it puts the plight of thousands of other illegal migrants in peril.

'Until now the Dominican Republic government has allowed the existence of illegal Haitian workers, knowing the extreme difficulties they face in their own country and which can be partly solved by work here,' says Marike de Pena, from Banelino, a well-known Fairtrade producer group that sells bananas to many UK supermarkets. She admits some of their small-scale producers may be using illegal workers but says the group wants more Haitian migrants to be able to stay in the country and get better salaries and legal status. To that end, the Fairtrade Foundation, together with banana producers, have been lobbying the government to resolve the issue.

For now though, the difficulties for many migrants persist. 'The network of migration, exploitation and violation of rights is mutually beneficial for Haiti and Dominican Republic. There is even money to be made on the border from trafficking. The institutions issuing visas, the Dominican economy and the banana industry getting cheap labour. Everyone benefits,' says Union organiser Luciano Robles.


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