Apr 25th 2002 | QUITO
From The Economist print edition
The children of the plantations
BANANAS are big in Ecuador. It is the world's leading exporter of the fruit. One way or another, one out of ten people in a population of 12m depends on the banana industry, which generated exports of $827m last year (or 4.6% of GDP). But is this yellow gold built on child labour and other abusive labour practices?
In a report this week, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, claimed that children as young as eight are forced to work 12-hour days on plantations where they are exposed to toxic chemicals and sexual harassment. The report was based on interviews with 45 children, of whom 40 said they had to continue working while toxic fungicides were sprayed from crop-dusters flying overhead. The children were paid an average wage of $3.50 per day, or less than 60% of the amount that is paid to an adult worker.
Banana-industry officials admit that about 3% of the industry's farm workforce (or 7,500 people) is under the legal working age of 14. But they say that eliminating child labour is not simple. Unlike Central America, where American multinational firms own almost all banana plantations, 70% of Ecuador's 6,200 banana producers are smallish family farms. Most of the child labourers work on their parents' farms.
The growers also claim that they are victims of the export firms, which have political clout as well as market power: a quarter of total exports are handled by companies owned by the family of Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador's richest man and a leading candidate in this year's presidential election. The growers complain that the local price of a box of bananas, which the government has fixed at $2.90, has squeezed their profit margin almost to nothing. With the export price at over $17, the growers say they should be getting more.
Everyone agrees that child labour in Ecuador is a consequence of poverty. “Just because they are under age doesn't mean we should reject them, they have a right to survive,'' said Simon Canarte, of the banana growers' association. “You can't just say they can't work, you have to provide alternatives,” adds Martin Insua, the labour minister. The government is working with the International Labour Organisation on a pilot project to persuade parents to send their children to school, and to stimulate alternative sources of income. But that is going to take time.
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