The bruising truth about bananas Plantation workers in Costa Rica are paying a high price for the tropical fruit on our tables. Trade unions are fighting to protect them.

DIDIER Leiton Valverde has been around the tropical fruit plantations on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica his entire life. The child of banana workers, at eight years old he was doing his schooling on the plantation itself. At 15 he was working in the fields. He was an agricultural worker for 19 years, 10 of them for Del Monte, one of the biggest companies in the fruit business.

“The work in the fields is very hard,” he says. “It’s often 12 hours under sun or rain. You're carrying up to 50 kilos of fruit on your shoulders, you have to run or walk long distances, you're exposed to chemicals. It’s savage.”

Such descriptions, along with the simple mention of ‘plantations’, conjure another time, when slavery was the norm. The world may have moved on from those extremes, but many rural people in Latin America continue to face horrendous working conditions; and while, theoretically, they are paid, many may not see it like that.

“We have a saying, that in Costa Rica people earn hunger salaries,” Didier observes. “With the salary that banana workers earn now, every day you can buy less and less in the supermarket.”

He adds another, more unusual, place-specific indicator, of how far wages are falling in a country in which it's estimated 25% of households live in poverty. “I built my house in 2000. At that time a sack of concrete cost 700 colones. Today it costs 8,000. Obviously, salaries have not increased at the same rate as concrete.

“We're living the worst moment in terms of salary and cost of living in Costa Rica," he continues. "All of this year the dollar has been losing its value. And when the companies are in crisis because the dollar is losing value, or because they're not selling as much fruit in Europe, or because there's a war in Ukraine, whatever reason, they double down on the workers."

paying the price

Costa Rica is the biggest supplier of pineapples and the second largest of bananas to the UK market. Both industries employ around 45,000 people, with banana and pineapple workers experiencing identical problems – the same companies, the same ethos, the same politics.

Production and export are dominated by the multinational fruit companies Chiquita, Del Monte, Dole and Fyffes, along with the national company Grupo Acon. But supermarkets are also powerful and harmful players on the banana supply chain – as they force the prices down, so the companies take more cost-cutting actions that penalise the workers.

Holly Woodward-Davey is project coordinator of the UK-based NGO Banana Link, which campaigns for and organises to achieve tangible changes in the lives of people working in banana and pineapple chains. She reports: “Employers have increasingly subcontracted labour in a bid to reduce their responsibility for working conditions, the respect of core labour standards or payment of a living wage.

“Plantation labour has become increasingly casual, with many workers on temporary contracts or hired on a daily basis. Membership of independent trade unions has fallen as a direct result. Many workers do not receive a ‘living wage’ to cover their basic needs such as housing, food, clothing and education."

Adds Didier: “We're living through a strong attack on the human rights of workers, with many people being fired, and the lowering of wages and conditions. And there's also a really strong attack on the unions, by the companies and the government. It's a critical situation.”

cold war in the tropics

Trade unions were once very active in Costa Rica. But for 40 years – since the onset of the new Cold War in the late Seventies, which had terrible consequences in Latin America – the union movement has been under attack by a triumvirate of industry, government and a part of the Catholic Church that is unsympathetic to trade unions.

Alongside repression and stigmatisation, they have used two cunning tactics to undermine, even displace unions: savings and loan organisations within the plantations, and so-called ‘workers committees’, which deal only with small-scale labour disputes – and depend on company resources to operate.

“Even today, this system is still in existence in Costa Rica,” Didier says. “And there is a general preference for dealing with the loans and savings organisation and the small disputes organisation, instead of working with unions.”

As a result, between 1982-1987 the percentage of unionised workers fell from 90% to just 5%. When Didier joined the Costa Rican Union of Agricultural Plantation Workers (SITRAP) in 1996, the attacks were unabated. In 1999, Del Monte fired its whole workforce in Costa Rica, over 8,000 workers, then rehired most of them for 50% less pay. The union leaders were not rehired.

“Del Monte was the company that kicked off this process,” Didier says, “but then it became almost a national trend, with Chiquita and Dole engaged in the same kind of activities of firing their workforces and then rehiring them on lower wages and worse conditions. And it was common that they would not rehire the labour activists when they rehired the workforce. It's always been hard working as a trade union organiser in Costa Rica.”

But this is exactly what he's doing ...

From member to general secretary

Didier Leiton Valverde with SITRAP members

Didier is in the thick of the fight to change workers’ fortunes – for the former field worker is now SITRAP’s general secretary, helping it to grow into one of the major trade unions representing workers in the agribusiness sector in Costa Rica.

After losing his job with Del Monte in 2000, Didier worked in a few different banana plantations, before SITRAP hired him as an organiser. He occupied various roles in the leadership of the union and then, in 2011, was elected as general secretary. He’s had the role ever since, which involves visiting plantations, assisting the union's legal department, and managing internationally funded projects and strategic work.

There is more consciousness on the part of workers that it's necessary to organise

SITRAP and other trade unions are slowing turning the tide, with the help of the international union movement and organisations such as Banana Link.

A key turning point in the fortunes of trade unions was the passing of a labour reform law in 2016, which originated with pressure from the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), which urged the Costa Rican government to improve its labour legislation. SITRAP campaigned strongly for the reform. As a result, unions have been able to take action against employers’ labour rights violations more effectively.

International campaigns, aimed at shaming fruit companies and retailers about these violations, have also strengthened the position of unions on the ground.

"After years of campaigning, we are now seeing European retailers begin to commit to implementing living wages in their banana supply chains,” says Holly. “And we hope that partnerships with independent workers' unions like SITRAP will be central to their strategy.”

Didier notes that, “Banana unions have got a lot stronger. It's really helped being able to go to the plantations and speak to the workers, to do affiliation drives and deliver trade union training and education.

“You could say, also, that there is more consciousness on the part of workers that it's necessary to organise.”

UNISON Solidarity

We have to think beyond public sector unions if we are going to help workers in these countries

UNISON has played a major role in this progress. Through its International Development Fund and in association with Banana Link, the union has supported three projects with SITRAP, aimed at strengthening the organising and collective bargaining in the Costa Rican fruit industry.

Nick Crook, UNISON’s head of international, explains: “Our solidarity doesn't just stop at public sector work. In countries like Costa Rica, public sector workers are probably the industrial elite – they are unionized, fairly well paid and, compared to other unions, they're relatively well organised. The same can be said in Africa, where public sector workers at least have a formal contract of employment.

“So, we took a decision a while ago to say, ‘Look, we have to think beyond public sector unions if we are going to help workers in these countries’. In Costa Rica, this is a vulnerable group of low-paid workers who work in very difficult conditions. Strong unions should, hopefully, improve their day-to-day working environment.”

The first UNISON-funded project, in 2017, provided half of Didier’s salary as an organiser, enabling him to spread the union’s message to thousands of workers in visits to plantations, packing plants and communities. During this period, SITRAP increased its female membership by 150%. It also trained 30 grassroots leaders and improved relations with the biggest employer, Del Monte.

The second project, in 2019, saw the signing of two historic collective bargaining agreements with Del Monte – the first between an independent trade union and a multinational fruit company since the industry’s first onslaught on unions.

I think it’s a great achievement to get so many female reps

In this period, SITRAP also boosted the work of its legal department, bringing before the courts cases of discrimination-based dismissal (leading to the successful reinstatement of workers) and occupational hazards. Workshops and education sessions continued to be a priority for the union. And membership was growing by a member a day.

The third project, between 2021-22, funded SITRAP’s continued capacity building, with development of its legal representation, conciliation role, communication and outreach work and training. As well as visiting plantations and plants, a key element of the union’s communication work is conducted in the community, including family activities and sports events.

The union now has a presence on around 70 banana and pineapple plantations. It has 2,200 members, with around 130 reps, 30 of whom are women. “I think it’s a great achievement to get so many female reps,” says Didier, “much more than the proportion of women in the workforce.”

Women in the plantations

The rural population on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast has few employment opportunities. As Mauren Gamboa, SITRAP's women’s officer, puts it: “For this area, the banana and pineapple reign supreme”. Working on the plantations is the only real option for many rural women to earn a living.

However, in Costa Rica, as in the whole of Latin America, the fruit industry workforce is overwhelmingly male – on average 87.5% of workers are men. This is partly due to a cultural perception of women as being primarily active within the domestic environment, partly because employers seek to avoid the cost of maternity leave.

When they are employed, women are generally restricted to the lower-paid, lower-skilled jobs in the fruit packing houses. They are vulnerable to the occupational risks posed to women's reproductive health by agrochemical use, and often face sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination, as well as discrimination against union affiliation.

In 2016, the union created a five-year plan to increase the membership of women workers on tropical fruit plantations and their representation within the union – leading to a situation where every workplace has at least one female rep. And that successful work continues.

Says Mauren: “What is it that makes a woman decide to join the union when her basic labour rights have been violated? They witness our example: they see that we are union members, and we have someone representing us, even fighting for us. They notice that we are treated better.

"I am the union rep in my workplace, so it is me who defends the rights of the other women. Colleagues witness our example and it reflects their own potential back at them.”

Moving forward

Our union is fighting for the right of the workers in the plantations to achieve a more dignified life

Another successful aim of the UNISON funding was for SITRAP to sufficiently grow its own resources, through membership, to pay its organisers itself. Says Didier: “The support of the project has been key to the sustained work of our union, despite so much union persecution, so many violations of human rights, so many dismissals. Our union is now a fairly consolidated union.”

Alastair Smith, Banana Link’s international coordinator, is full of praise for Didier, his SITRAP colleagues and members. “Only the sheer persistence and sacrifices by union leadership and the thousands sacked for choosing union membership have enabled unions like SITRAP to avoid complete disappearance. SITRAP has distinguished itself by a strategy of grassroots education, legal defence and family-based service provision.”

Nick concludes: “Given the traditional hostility of some of the multinational companies like Del Monte to trade union organising, it's a significant victory for the Costa Rican trade unions, supported by UNISON's international development fund, to achieve recognition and collective agreements.”

For Didier, the fight continues, with freedom of association, occupational health, strengthening of the union’s legal department, and the pursuit of labour rights through more collective bargaining agreements all part of his agenda.

International support remains essential. “Due to this support, communicating the violation of human rights and labour rights to consumers, our work is made known," he says. "And it is extremely important that it is known, because our union is fighting for the right of the workers in the plantations to achieve a more dignified life.”

Banana Link

Banana Link’s objective is “to achieve tangible changes in the lives of people working in banana and pineapple chains”. This involves:

  • Fair and ethical trade practices, based on a fair living wage, equitable distribution of value along the chain, and competitive market access for small producers
  • Dignity for workers and respect for labour and trade union rights
  • Sustainable production systems, which reduce dependence on hazardous substances and minimise adverse health and environmental impacts on natural resources, workers and communities
  • Constructive dialogue between all economic and non-economic stakeholders that accelerates a transition to fair, equitable and sustainable banana and pineapple chains.


Words and design: Demetrios Matheou

Images. Main: Bigstock/Rosshelen. Supermarket bananas: iStock.com/Alper Akca. Solidarity: Bigstock/honksantina