In Ecuador's Banana Fields, Child Labor Is Key to Profits
The New York Times July 13, 2002
By JUAN FORERO PUERTO INCA, Ecuador - At Los Álamos plantation,
it would appear that no expense was spared to produce the Bonita
brand Cavendish bananas sold in the United States. The modern 3,000-acre
hacienda in this steamy corner of Ecuador, one of the most efficient
in Latin America, employs some 1,300 workers to tend banana plants
fed by a state-of-the-art irrigation system. The owner is Álvaro
Noboa, Ecuador's richest man and a worldly bon vivant. He has become
the leading candidate for president with the help of a slick marketing
campaign that has cast him as a populist friend of the poor. "I
love the workers at Los Álamos," Mr. Noboa told local reporters
in May, when he announced his candidacy. But in interviews, a dozen
children and many adults spoke of child laborers at Los Álamos,
among them a spindly-armed 10-year-old, Esteban Menéndez. "I come
here after school and I work here all day," Esteban said. "I have
to work to help my father, to help him make money."
The presence of children on the plantation of a man who may win
Ecuador's presidential election in October is one of the more glaring
examples of how enduring the use of child labor remains in Latin
America, where some 42 million children from ages 5 to 14 have been
estimated to be working in recent years. The problem has been made
more durable still by the competition that comes with a consolidated
global market. Pressures on businesses to be efficient and profitable
are often passed on to the world's most vulnerable population, its
poorest children. Growers and exporters here, who supply 25 percent
of the bananas eaten in the United States, say the product earns
them about 30 percent less today than a decade ago, often prompting
them to turn a blind eye to labor codes.
Child labor is common on plantations, large and small. Meanwhile,
grim economic realities leave families more than ready to send their
boys, and sometimes girls, out to work, even if it means pulling
them out of school and placing them in fields or factories where
they are exposed to hazardous conditions for little or no pay. For
two years, Esteban and his family say, the boy has bounded up 15-foot
banana plants, tying insecticide-laced cords between them to stabilize
trunks that might otherwise collapse under the weight of the produce
that is behind Mr. Noboa's fortune of over $1 billion. He works
for nothing to help his father, who tends 98 acres, avoid having
his pay docked. "That is the life of my sons, working in the bananas
at such a young age," said Esteban's mother, Benita Menéndez, 36,
who has had three sons working at Mr. Noboa's plantation, only one
of them an adult. "I did not want them to work when they were little,
but this is the reality."
Ecuador's problem is less severe than that of other countries in
the region. Even so, the International Labor Organization estimated
that 69,000 children ages 10 to 14, and an additional 325,000 young
people ages 15 to 19, were working here in 1999. Only a significant
increase in wages, at best a distant prospect in a country where
the average worker earns $5.74 a day, will keep families from sending
their children out into the fields, labor advocates here and in
the United States say. But while rights activists regard such labor
as unacceptable, many parents like Mr. and Mrs. Menéndez see it
as a necessity. When several plantations, fearing unwanted attention,
dismissed their child workers after a damning 114-page report in
April by Human Rights Watch, the action was taken as a disaster
by families across the lush banana belt of southern Ecuador - the
world's largest banana exporter and an increasingly important source
for American corporations like Dole and Del Monte, according to
"They fired all the children, but the work they did helped us,"
complained María Narváez, 31, whose two sons, Néstor and Luis Boa,
12 and 13, were dismissed from a big hacienda where they earned
$3 a day. "The situation is such that we all have to pitch in."
At Los Álamos, which supplies the world's fourth-largest banana
company, labor conditions have become increasingly contentious.
Employees' efforts to organize for better wages and working conditions
led to a violent standoff this year - a dispute that simmers today
in the form of an intermittent strike by some families, including
Esteban's own. The workers unionized in March. The company responded
by dismissing more than 120 of them. When the workers occupied part
of the hacienda, guards armed with shotguns, some wearing hoods,
arrived at 2 a.m. on May 16, according to workers, and fired on
some who had refused to move from the entrance gate, wounding two.
The guards, workers said, then entered the grounds and burst into
barracks where other workers were sleeping and forced them out.
The next afternoon, workers again gathered at the gate, where they
parked a bus across the road to block delivery trucks. The guards
confronted them again, this time wounding seven more - including
Esteban's father, Bernabé Menéndez - and a policeman. "It was an
attack on innocent people," said Jan Nimmo, a Scottish labor advocate
who was with the workers that day and videotaped the afternoon confrontation
at the gate. Mr. Noboa's lawyer, Rafael Pino, attributed the violence
to the workers, saying the guards had been sent in to protect property
that was being vandalized. "At no moment were there shots from our
side," he said.
But the violence prompted the United States Embassy to ask the
government to ensure the safety of the striking workers. An American
delegation that included two members of Congressional staffs visited
Los Álamos workers in June. "This is sort of the underbelly of globalization,"
said Representative George Miller, a California Democrat who sent
an aide to Ecuador. "We ask for labor protections and we ask for
environmental protections," Mr. Miller said, "and we're told we
can't have them, and when the citizens of that country try to get
those protections, they're met with force from the company to keep
that from happening."
After the confrontation at Los Álamos, a Chicago-based labor rights
group, the U.S./Labor Education in the Americas Project, began pressing
Costco, a distributor of Bonita bananas, to lean on Mr. Noboa to
improve labor conditions. Under pressure, his banana company has
promised to improve medical services, provide masks, gloves and
other equipment and settle complaints about unpaid overtime wages.
But it has refused to recognize the workers' unions, Labor Ministry
officials said. Mr. Noboa, who divides much of his time between
Guayaquil and New York, declined to be interviewed, and campaign
aides did not return phone calls and e-mail messages seeking comment.
But his lawyer, Mr. Pino, said children under 14, who are tightly
restricted from working under Ecuador's labor laws, did not work
at Los Álamos. "Impossible," he said in an interview. "To violate
the law cannot be done, and it is not the company policy either."
Though no one knows exactly how many children work on the large
plantations across Ecuador, Sergio Seminario, an analyst and former
president of the Association of Banana Exporters, estimated 6,000,
with thousands more working on small family farms. The Labor Ministry
has long been aware of the problem in the industry, which accounts
for 20 percent of Ecuador's exports. But Alberto Montalvo, the highest-ranking
ministry official in this region, said it was difficult to root
out. "We all believe in human rights and labor rights," he said.
"It is all very beautiful, but we also have to recognize that all
the members of families have to work to pay for basic needs." The
existence of child labor on plantations is a product of simple arithmetic.
Workers receive so little in part because the wholesalers and retailers
abroad reap most of the profits, particularly with the recent consolidation
of huge retail outlets like Wal-Mart, Costco and Carrefour. Each
43-pound box of bananas purchased here by exporters for $2 or $3
goes for $25 in the United States or Europe. The Ecuadorean grower
makes 12 cents on the dollar, according to the National Association
of Banana Growers. "These big chains say, `We will buy your bananas
off the boat, but at our price,' " Mr. Seminario said. "So the exporter
has learned that to sell to those chains he must sell at their price."
If the growers are squeezed, the banana workers feel the pain.
Their work force is almost entirely nonunion, and workers are often
deliberately shifted from one payroll to another by growers who
set up multiple companies on paper to avoid paying benefits and
higher wages. The workers and their children here said difficult
conditions had long been the norm at Los Álamos. The families who
live here in Puerto Inca cram themselves into crude cinder-block
houses with tin roofs. Indoor plumbing is rare. The main earners
among several families said they received $6 to $7 a day - within
Ecuador's minimum wage of $128 a month - but were often expected
to work six or seven days a week, failing to earn the overtime pay
set by law.
The monthly minimum they earn falls far short of the $220 the government
says a poor family of four needs to meet basic needs, so children
go to work. "With my husband's salary, we did not have enough for
school, not enough for food," said Patricia Céspedes, explaining
why she had pulled her nephew out of school at age 11 and sent him
to work at Mr. Noboa's hacienda. The boy, Máximo Gómez, whom Ms.
Céspedes has raised since his mother's death, is now 14 and a veteran
field hand. Esteban goes to school in addition to working. But many
families say they earn so little that they must choose which of
their children to educate and which to send into the factories and
fields. Such economic necessity keeps 55 percent of Ecuadorean children
from attending secondary school, the World Bank says. Mr. Noboa
remains a frequent visitor to New York, where, according to his
spokesman, Pablo Martínez, he mingles with the Rockefellers and
When his son was christened at St. Patrick's Cathedral last year,
an event shown on Ecuadorean television, Robert Kennedy Jr. served
as the godfather. But Mr. Noboa's great hope is to reach the presidency,
which he failed to win in 1998. Mr. Noboa has portrayed himself
as an outsider whose policies will improve life for most Ecuadoreans.
He has made no extensive public remarks about the dispute with the
workers at Los Álamos. In fact, the poor labor conditions and the
existence of child workers have made barely a political ripple here.
An investigation of the shootings at Los Álamos has not led to any
arrests, nor has it shed light on what happened. Mr. Noboa's aides
say the troubles on his hacienda are politically motivated efforts
to embarrass him in the midst of a presidential campaign. "If he
wasn't running for president and wasn't the richest man in Ecuador,
this wouldn't be happening," Mr. Martínez said.