Fairtrade bananas come from small farmer cooperatives like Asoguabo, where the farmers are their own bosses and work their own farms, but they also come from big plantations that function completely with hired labour. Throughout history, the banana workers’ trade unions have had problems with plantations in Latin America who don’t let their workers organize. The problems also exist on fairtrade plantations, according to German Zepeda from the banana union COLSIBA to the norwegian news site Klassekampen.
-On most of the fairtrade plantations, there are no contracts between employer and employees. There aren’t even trade unions. Plantation workers who meet the unions get fired, says German Zepeda.
The Latin American banana plantations that belong to Fair Trade are not clear about the role of the unions and don’t cooperate enough with them, says Zepeda, who recently visited Denmark.
Fair Trade certifies plantations to ensure that the employees work under fair conditions. The plantations have to follow a set of rules (read them here) and fairtrade auditors visit the plantations at regular intervals to ensure that the rules are followed. According to German Zepeda, the workers are better off on fairtrade plantations than on other plantations, if the rules are being followed.
-But there’s a need for better control on many plantations. As Fair Trade has grown, there’s a clear need to improve the control, he says.
And the fairtrade criteria cannot replace contracts with the workers, he underscores.
Judith Kyst, secretary general for the fairtrade organization Max Havelaar in Denmark says:
-We want to work on three levels. First, we have constructed the fairtrade standard for hired labour so that today it emphasizes the unions more than before. Second, we are going to put more effort into capacity building, so the workers become more aware and better at negotiating. We can help open the doors for the unions, and everyone agrees that it’s they who should organize workers, not we.
The banana workers’ union in Ecuador is called FENACLE, and the union has also tried to organise fairtrade plantations in Ecuador without success. The union’s struggle is directed towards plantations, even if part of the small farmers also have employees. However, most of them only have a few employees, and the union hasn’t been trying to organise them. According to FENACLE, the relationship with small farmers organisations are fraternal. The fairtrade criteria for small farmers (which you can read here) list certain rights for the workers, and one of them is the right to collective bargaining with the employer if there are a significant number of workers. What constitutes a ”significant number” depends on the laws of the country.
Asoguabo’s and its farmers’ employees don’t belong to any union, but the quality controllers and the office workers have associations that are being supported financially through the fairtrade premium.