By Anahi Malig, Volunteer, International Labor Rights Forum
Since the 1960s, worldwide pineapple production has quadrupled and exports have tripled. Before then, Hawaii was the number one pineapple exporter; however, production has since expanded to regions throughout Africa, Asia, and Central America.
Today, most of the fresh pineapple found in European and US supermarkets comes from Costa Rica. A non-traditional crop in Central America, the pineapple eventually became the country’s second most important agricultural export. This expansion is the result of a state policy which aims to favor an export economy by providing incentives for domestic and foreign investment through tax exemptions.
One of the main pineapple suppliers in Costa Rica that emerged during the seventies is PINDECO (Pineapple Development Corporation), a subsidiary of Fresh Del Monte. Located on some 37,000 acres of land in the southern Pacific coastal region of Costa Rica, PINDECO is responsible for the introduction of the Smooth Cayenne variety, which accounts for at least 50% of the country's pineapple.
The amount of land used for pineapple growth since 1998 has nearly quadrupled. In spite of this dramatic expansion, however, pineapple workers and local communities have not seen many benefits. For years, many grass root organizations in Costa Rica have been condemning what they see as a destructive industry whose expansion has come about at the cost of worker and natural resource exploitation.
In 2008 environmental groups and labor unions joined forces to form FRENASAPP, the National Front of Sectors Affected by the Pineapple Industry. Over the past few years, their protests, which were initially met with indifference from local authorities, have found more support and are echoed by international groups. Two years ago, the ILRF published a report detailing the environmental and social cost of pineapple production in Costa Rica and the Philippines. More recently, Consumers International (a world federation of consumer groups) launched an international campaign based on research carried out by Banana Link. Moreover, The Guardian released an article and video entitled “Pineapples: Luxury fruit at what price?” that urges consumers to examine the true cost of pineapples and their effect on workers and the environment.
One of the main issues brought up in both the ILRF report and The Guardian article is the severe use of pesticides and its impact on local ecosystems and the health of the workers and inhabitants of neighboring communities. According to Fernando Ramirez, a leading agronomist at the Costa Rican National University’s toxic substance institute, “pineapples need very large amounts of pesticides, about 20 kg of active ingredients per hectare per cycle. The soil is sterilized; biodiversity is eliminated. Fourteen to sixteen different types of treatment are typically needed, and many have to be applied several times. They use chemicals that are dangerous for the environment and human health”.
A report released by the Centro de Investigación en Contaminación Ambiental (CICA) and the Instituto Regional de Sustancias Tóxicas (IRET), from the University of Costa Rica and the National University of Costa Rica, respectively, reconfirmed Ramirez' claims, showing that the water supplies in the communities of Milano, Luisiana, La Francia and El Cairo presented high levels of agrochemicals such as the herbicides Diuron and Bromacil (a chemical linked with thyroid, kidney and liver cancers), and the fungicide Triadimefon (a reproductive toxin and suspected hormone disruptor) – all substances that are used in the surrounding plantations.
In addition to the systematic and prolonged exposure to chemicals, pineapple workers have been forced to deal with exploitative wages and long hours. As the ILRF report pointed out, the “multinational companies that buy and distribute pineapple are pressured into reducing costs to be able to compete for a place on the supermarket shelf. Since input costs such as fertilizers and gas are often fixed or rising, supplier companies such as Del Monte and Dole will often seek to maximize profits by minimizing their labor cost”. The canton of Buenos Aires de Oso, where PINDECO has been operating for more than 30 years is today one of the 7 poorest cantons in Costa Rica.
The pineapple workforce is composed primarily of migrants from Nicaragua who come to Costa Rica attracted by the comparatively higher standard of living. Most of them are undocumented and as such are more vulnerable to abuses such as extremely low wages, workdays of over 12 hours with no overtime compensation and arbitrary/illegitimate firings.
Workers are very reluctant to fight back out of fear of retaliation from management. The SITRAP union (Sindicato de Trabajadores de las Plantaciones) formed in 2003 by workers of PINDECO has condemned the harassment, massive firing and blacklisting of unionized workers in several pineapple plantations. Didier Leiton, the Secretary of SITRAP in Costa Rica, said, “Every time a group of workers on the pineapple plantations decides to organize a union, the company begins a campaign to prevent the development of the union.”
Most of the companies refuse to recognize the union and only agree to negotiate with the “comités permanentes.” “Comites permanentes” are committees created in the spirit of “solidarismo”, a movement created by a section of the Catholic Church which purports to promote a concept of peaceful labor relations, while ultimately attempting to undermine and replace independent workers unions. PinaFrut S.A., of Grupo Acon, has been funding a “School” called the “Escuela Social Juan XXII”, which aims to dissuade workers from joining SITRAP. Workers are warned about the danger of unions through films and literature that blames the unions for the closure of banana plantations in southern Costa Rica during the 1980s.
Companies also have increased their hiring of subcontracted and temporary laborers as a strategy to prevent unionization efforts. The ubiquitous nature of precarious work in agriculture and other sectors undermines workers’ rights to stable employment and the benefits granted to regular employees by law. To find out more about working conditions in pineapple and other agricultural industries, check out ILRF’s Sweatshops in the Fields. And to learn more about contract labor and precarious work’s effects on workers’ lives, click here.