In my first job out of college, I lived and worked on a banana farm outside of Quevedo, Ecuador, the city where my father grew up. It was the year of El Niño, and it rained incessantly. The workers and I spent days and nights ‘fighting’ the rain to ensure the banana trucks could make it onto to the highway.
As a manager, I lived by myself on a house on the top of a hill without running water or electricity. Each night I slept with an old rifle next to me. I was told to shoot it in the middle of the night to communicate to people that I was ok and to keep any robbers away. We did not have workers living at the farm; the workers lived close by with their families in similar or worse living conditions.
From that job, what I remember most vividly are the farm workers with whom I worked. There were close to 60 farm workers on the farm. They were all paid per-diem and none of them were affiliated with the national social security program as the law required. On one day, I was in the banana field, checking on rain damage, when I heard the airplane over my head. I felt drops of a wet substance land on me. I had been sprayed with the fungicides used to control sigatoka, a leaf spot disease on banana plants. I remember thinking, “If this happened to me as farm management, what happens on a day to day to these farm workers?” It was obvious that this was not the first time such an incident had occurred. Workers in the fields day after day were clearly at risk.
The workers’ ages ranged from 10 to 60+ years old. The oldest worker, a 60+ year-old woman, was the grandmother of the youngest worker, age 10. He worked at the packing station, receiving the bananas from the field and preparing them for the container. He worked during his school vacation alongside his grandmother. She could not read or write so he would sign for her at the end of the week when they got paid. The boy, whose name I do not remember after all these years, but whose face I still recall, was a hard-working, skinny kid. I don’t know why he was allowed at the farm but that was not an issue for anybody else. When I asked the management, I was told it was allowed.
One day, he cut his hand while he was cutting off the banana clusters from the trunks arriving from the field. You can see the process I describe in this video (at minute 2:47). At first, he wanted to continue working but the other workers brought him to the office. He did not want to come with me to the doctor nor to the pharmacy in the town, approximately 20 minutes from the farm. He was afraid that he would get in trouble with his family for not working the whole day. His grandma was not working that day. In theory, the doctor was also going to be expensive since there was co-pay even though this was an accident. I took him to the doctor, and I paid for his visit with the farm’s money. Several stitches later, he was on his way home with a full day’s pay.
This experience confirmed for me what should be obvious – children should not be working on farms or doing work where they are at risk of accidents; farms should pay for the health expenses of workers who suffer injuries at work and should receive full compensation for the work they miss due to an accident. Yet, this was certainly not happening on the farm. The reality of the rural sector in my country was far more horrific. Even though less than a year later I was no longer working on the farm, I knew its reality, a reality in which I had participated. And it is still the reality of many farm workers on banana farms in my country, and for farm workers across different sectors in countries throughout the world.
I feel fortunate that I have an opportunity to do something about it now. I am specifically trying to work with farm workers in coffee. Farm workers are a group that have not been included in the sustainability work of the coffee industry. Now we have a chance to do something to make sure that when U.S. consumers drink a cup of coffee, they know that there is not a story of injustice for farm workers behind that cup.