Gilbert Bermudez, is a former banana farm worker and Costa Rican trade union leader, who went on to coordinate the Latin American trade union coordinating body COLSIBA for over 15 years. Here he writes on the absolute necessity of involving trade unions in living wage implementation processes for banana and other agro-industrial farm workers.
A living wage is a necessity for banana workers in Latin America and worldwide. The challenge remains around who establishes wage rates and how they are implemented.
This necessity has been understood for many years. As far back as 1998, banana industry stakeholders acknowledged the need for all supply chain actors to work together and prevent a ‘race to the bottom’, by increasing the price of fruit and ensuring decent work and living wages for workers. This was raised in 1998 and again in 2005, at the first international banana conferences held in Brussels.
10 years ago, in 2013, the Coordinating Body of Latin American Banana and Agro-industrial Unions (COLSIBA), responded to proposals to increase the price of fruit with the following statement:
“We believe that a negotiated solution is urgently needed, one that breaks with the logic used in the past, where other stakeholders have agreed to exclude workers and their legitimate organisations, in order to prevent them from organising independently and bargaining collectively for their rights and wages. This is the only path that will lead to an effective minimisation of the poverty experienced by workers in the agro-industrial sector.”
Up until this time, while far from perfect, labour relations on banana plantations in Central and South America had been relatively stable. In some countries, like Costa Rica, the situation was complex and difficult. But the majority of Central American countries were characterised by mature labour relations, and movements towards gender equity, environmental protection and the protection of labour rights were being made. There was not the level of female exclusion and sexual harassment of women workers that is prevalent today, for example. At plantation level, this meant much more respectful relationships between workers and their employers and more stable negotiations.
About 15 years ago, in 2013, labour relations began to break down and this came hand-in-hand with the ‘race to the bottom’. Today, the examples we can look to for mature labour relations between independent workers unions and plantation management are very few.
So, what should we propose for achieving living wages for banana plantation workers today?
Among the few examples left in 2023, Colombia is without a doubt the ‘holy grail’. Here we can observe what is possible with the existence of decent, transparent labour-relations. In Colombia, there is total inclusion of women in the labour force, a formidable collective agreement, impressive social benefits - including student scholarships - and a 14% pay rise has that just been negotiated. Who can give a better example of dignity for banana plantation workers, and their families?
I do not see any other way to achieve living wages in banana supply chains, in any other scenario, apart from in those countries where there is collective bargaining, where there are mature and stable labour relations. Colombia is the best example, and European supermarkets should be buying their bananas from Colombia and other countries that follow the Colombian example. Only by involving our workers organisations in all stages of the living wage process will we be able to make a genuine impact on their lives.
It is crucial to understand that the concept of a ‘living wage’ is not only about the wage itself. It also encompasses wider aspects of employment such as job security, safe work, healthcare and social security coverage, an environment of mutual respect between workers and their employers and zero sexual harassment in the workplace.
Collective bargaining is essential
All this is only possible through collective bargaining, between farm owners and independent trade union organisations. This is the process that should be promoted to implement living wages on farms. Other approaches that involve only producers and buyers, while excluding workers, have failed in the past and will continue to fail.
The reality is that there exists no mathematic formula that is adequate for calculating the living wage. Please be under no delusion: living wage can only be defined from within the context of mature labour relations and collective bargaining by independent workers unions. Technical, academic methodologies that claim to define living wages for workers, in reality have the effect of excluding them from participating in a process in which the outcome directly affects their lives. In Latin America, and elsewhere, this doesn’t work. For example, you can see in Ecuador, that the living wage reference value has been calculated as almost the same as the national minimum wage – this doesn’t add up. Living wage is, and has always been, part of a wider social and environmental question, linked to gender equity, women’s inclusion, human rights, and ultimately human relationships. Supermarkets and other actors should not become over-engaged with these technical and academic tools.
Even the Fairtrade system, with its minimum price and workers premium, does not negate the need for workers representation through independent unions. Without it, even workers on Fairtrade certified farms, in Dominican Republic or in Peru, are not guaranteed a living wage.
In all scenarios, there is no magic formula for defining the living wage – rather there exists a practical formula: a formula that is not defined by academics in London and implemented from above, but is genuinely context-based, and that comes from the ground - from plantation-level reality, from stable, mature labour relations such as those that exist in Colombia.
It is important to mention that several supermarkets have already taken a step forward on this route to living wages. The challenge is to recognise that this process is not only for the supermarkets to solve, rather it must be a collaboration between all those involved in the fruit production and marketing chain. The results could be significant.