In Ecuador's Banana Fields, Child Labor Is Key to Profits

See the article in its original context from
July 13, 2002, Section A, Page 1Buy Reprints
TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers.

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 the report.

''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.

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 other luminaries. 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, who runs a conglomerate that his late father founded, decades ago, 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.