By Ellie Murphy
Americans eat a lot of bananas. The U.S. is world’s biggest importer of bananas, eating between 28 and 30 bananas per person per year. Worldwide, bananas are the most popular fruit with 100 billion consumed annually. The fruit is nutritious and cheap. Prices generally fluctuate between 30 cents and $1.00 per banana. It’s a great deal for the consumer, but someone is paying a heavy price to produce bananas: exploited farmworkers, including many children.
The work is hard, often dangerous, and not fit for children—who just want to help their impoverished families. Stagnating banana prices have put the squeeze on farmers, leading some planters to hire the cheapest workers—children.
Countries that use child labor to produce bananas include Ecuador, Belize, Brazil, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.
Poverty is the main driver of child labor, but children in the developing world face barriers to accessing education that can also push them toward the work world. Barriers include paying for school fees, uniforms and books. In some countries, there aren’t enough schools, classrooms or teachers. Transportation problems also impact children’s ability to attend school.
Child labor in the banana sector poses significant challenges to children’s’ health and overall well-being. Child workers employed at these plantations are often forced to handle sharp tools like machetes, carry heavy loads, and face exposure to agrochemicals like pesticides and fungicides without protective clothing or gear. Dizziness, nausea, and negative long-term health conditions can result for child workers, and because child workers often live on banana plantations, escaping these health hazards is nearly impossible.
Let’s take a closer look at Ecuador, the world’s top exporter of bananas.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in April 2002 found widespread labor and human rights abuses on Ecuadorian banana plantations. Children as young as eight were found performing hazardous work. “The use of harmful child labor is widespread in Ecuador’s banana sector,” concluded HRW. Report authors interviewed 45 child banana workers and found that 41 began working between eight and 13 with most starting at age 10 or 11. “Their average workday lasted twelve hours, and fewer than 40 percent of the children were still in school by the time they turned fourteen,” noted HRW. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) almost half of indigenous children in rural areas do not attend school, “which can make them more vulnerable to child labor.
“In the course of their work, [child banana workers] were exposed to toxic pesticides, used sharp knives and machetes, hauled heavy loads of bananas, drank unsanitary water, and some were sexually harassed,” noted HRW.
Roughly 90 percent of the children HRW interviewed reported that they “continued working while toxic fungicides were sprayed from airplanes flying overhead. In an attempt to avoid harmful chemicals, children interviewed about their experience stated that they used various methods to avoid toxic chemicals: “hiding under banana leaves, bowing their heads, covering their faces with their shirts, covering their noses and mouths with their hands, and placing banana cartons on their heads.”
About one in 20 Ecuadorian children in the 5-14 age group work—and four in five of these child workers toil on farms, according to data from USDOL released in its 2019 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (2019) report.
Clearly, child labor laws in Ecuador are not being adequately enforced. Alarmingly, according to the USDOL, funding for Ecuador’s labor inspectorate fell dramatically from $1.5 million in 2017 to $265,398 in 2018. During that time the number of inspectors increased from 150 to 249. There is no explanation provided for these conflicting numbers but USDOL did note there were fiscal pressures on the Ecuadorian government.
The 2002 HRW report cited many causes of child labor, including discrimination against unionized adult workers who earn higher wages. As a result, many workers who unionize are fired and replaced with children who earn around $3.50 per day, 60% of the minimum wage for banana farmers. “Ecuadorian law fails to protect effectively the right to freedom of association, and employers take advantage of the weak law and even weaker enforcement to impede worker organizing,” noted HRW.