Bananas are considered the most popular fruit in the world, with over 100 billion units eaten every year. Five billions of them are consumed in the UK, where one in three bananas sold carries the Fairtrade mark, according to the Fairtrade Association.
As much as it is true that the fruits of the wise man (as translated from the banana scientific name musa sapientum) could help people to feel better because they contain a protein converted into serotonin by the body, Fairtrade bananas should be a source of happiness – they secure a better life to thousands of farmers, workers and their families. The main purposes of Fairtrade is in fact to help producers living in developing countries to get a fair price for their produce, guarantee the ethical treatment of workers and importantly, reduce poverty.
This is a huge industry made of millions of medium and small-scale farmers and which secures employment for thousands of people in Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and West Africa; it also generates a $1 Fairtrade Premium per case sold to invest in business or community projects chosen by local people. Asotrapam is a national workers’ association launched to exchange ideas and gives advice to all plantations workers on how to better invest the premium.
However, many of these farmers still live in poverty. What is the point of having Fairtrade bananas when the workers of their estates in tropical regions get paid $5 per 8-hour workday, then?
Despite varying figures from one country to another, this is what happens in the Dominican Republic, one of the top producers of Fairtrade bananas in the world. In fact, 70 per cent of its total crops carries the special green, blue & black logo.
Haitians are the main victims and make up most of the workforce in the Spanish Caribbean Island, because locals carefully avoid being exploited in the banana plantations. Moreover, they generally live in wood slums called batey located far away from the residential areas and some of them no longer hold a valid document: according to a 2013 constitutional court verdict, in fact, the descendants of Haitian immigrants born in the Dominican Republic after 1929, are no longer entitled to the Dominican nationality. Therefore, there is an entire group of country-less hard-working people all over the island. Meanwhile, all work associations within the local companies are managed by Dominicans.
The only possibility of safeguarding the interest of both Dominican and Haitian workers is Sintranor, the first banana workers’ trade union and the brainchild of Eligio Almonte, a local man who has always have the workers’ rights close to his heart, regardless of their nationality. Despite its over 300 members, the union still goes undercover to avoid threats from those companies which profit from the Fairtrade banana business by exploiting the poorest labourers. Unfortunately, the abundant manpower can only facilitate such a modern, legalised slavery.
Another move having negative repercussions on the poor Haitians is the supermarket price war happening in the UK, where around half of the bananas produced in the Dominican Republic end up. Despite the hard work required to produce the popular fruits and their enormous journey, the price of a banana bought in a UK big store dropped from around 18p ten years ago to the current 11p, all due to the competition among big grocery stores.
Nicola Frame, previous media & PR manager at the Fairtrade Association, launched a campaign in 2014 to make banana fairer by encouraging some of the main UK supermarkets to stock more Fairtrade fruit:
“Bananas are the UK’s favorite fruit and so many of the banana farmers and workers that grow them are living in poverty, but that is not what UK shops want. They really care about the conditions of the banana workers and these, in turn, want an independent insurance that retailers are doing the right thing”.
Current figures show the success of Ms. Frame’s campaign in terms of Fairtrade stocks filling the English grocery baskets. However, poverty is still an issue in those faraway lands where the rich fruit is grown.
Retailers could make a real difference to the lives of banana workers and farmers in the developing world by increasing the selling price of their produce and it is very likely that consumers, in turn, would buy more expensive bananas without grumbling.
Banana Link, which is actively involved in Fairtrade efforts, has highlighted the discrepancy between the success of Fairtrade bananas in the Western world and the low salaries of those who make this business happen:
“Today Fairtrade bananas account for an increasing percentage of the total world trade in bananas and over a third of those sold in the UK carry the Mark. However, the wages achieved by Fairtrade workers remain below a minimum income standard which would cover the cost of food, education travel, housing, clothing and cultural activities. Fairtrade International is actively working on how to ensure a living wage is paid, by incorporating this into the Fairtrade minimum price paid for bananas”.