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Mar 14, 2001

Study faults labour practices on banana farms

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It’s an industry that is a study in contradiction. While bringing in almost thirty-eight million U.S. dollars in foreign exchange, that money is divided among only nine farmers. It employs several thousand workers, but most of them have been imported from the neighbouring republics. And although it receives massive subsidies from Europe, those employees are often forced to live and work in deplorable conditions. In case you haven’t figured it out, the industry is bananas. Today two organisations which have a long history of hostility to the status quo in that business presented the results of a study of life in the fields and under the sheds. Not surprisingly, the report, entitled “Fruit of Their Labour,” finds that all is not well in the banana belt.

Ann-Marie Williams, Reporting

In May of 1995, workers in the banana belt organised themselves into a union primarily to agitate for better working conditions in the labour-intensive banana industry. When the United Banners Banana Worker’s Union was rebuffed, they staged a massive strike in June of 1995, which led to wide spread police and BDF harassment and even deportation among the largely immigrant workforce.

Despite the efforts of union president Marciana Funez and a large measure of international publicity, the union ultimately failed in its attempt to be legally recognised.

Six years later, the “Fruit of Their Labour” has been documented. Women’s activist Elizabeth Matute Waight, lived among the workers for six months in an effort to document their lives.

She says the seventy-three women and twenty-six men she interviewed told stories of human rights abuses, poor working conditions and low pay.

Elizabeth Matute Waight, Data Collector

“We work long hours, we did not get overtime. When we have public and bank holiday out here, we’re getting our holiday and our pay, they do not get that, they have to work and they get their present pay. They do not get time and a half. If they work for fifteen years, they do not get any severance pay either. Management would say you know five years down the road we had changed the name or we had changed the company, so you do not require a severance pay until after seven years in our labour law book.”

“They don’t give a pay slip, so they don’t know how many hours. Some of the will say ‘Well I keep a pen and a book and I write down so much hours that I work, but at the end of the week when I get my pay, I don’t get that, so I know they’re robbing me.’

Matute-Waight says the women worked long hours for a paltry sixteen dollars per day in less than humane conditions.

Elizabeth Matute Waight

“They come to look for them from 4:00 in the morning. They start to work 5:00 and it’s an all-day standing, they work standing. In the morning let’s say a two or three minutes break to have a lunch at 8:30 a.m. and then they have to go back. You cannot sit, you cannot move, because the captain will be there ‘Hurry, hurry we need to work.’ They would constantly be on their (the women’s) back, ‘We need the shipment’ and 12:00 they don’t have time to eat their lunch.”

“You’re all wet because the banana selection is in water with the chemical, you hands are wet, feet. They don’t give them aprons to wear. They have to buy their aprons for forty dollars out of the little but that they make.”

General Secretary of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize, Antonio Gonzales, says the publication of the study is not only to highlight the worker’s condition, but to serve as concrete evidence to force government to address the issue.

Antonio Gonzalez, Gen. Secretary, Nat’l Trade Union Congress

“We strongly believe that there’s a need to have a specific labour office within that industry, well equipped with at least two labour officers so that the problems and the grievances of the workers in that industry are not only addresses, but to find solutions, because it will continue.”

Ann-Marie Williams for News 5.

A greater diversity of views may be heard at an upcoming “banana forum” to be held March twenty-second at the Radisson. Scheduled participants include the Banana Growers Association, labour officers and government officials as well as representative of SPEAR and the unions.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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