Change for the better in Dominican banana industry

29 October 2015

An opinion piece by Peter Gaynor, Executive Director of Fairtrade Ireland and the Chair of Fairtrade International’s Workers’ Rights Advisory Committee.

Seeing black South Africans queueing for days to vote for the first time. Seeing the Berlin Wall coming down. Sometimes hope and history rhyme (in the words of Seamus Heaney), and the world looks on in a kind of disbelief. People thought these occasions would never happen – and then, somehow, they do.

It felt like an historic time to be in the Dominican Republic in September. Something significant was happening. Haitian migrant workers, who had been without legal protection for decades, were receiving paperwork that would begin to secure their rights.

Fairtrade visit

We visited the Dominican Republic as part of a Fairtrade delegation from the UK, Sweden and Ireland. Although the Dominican Republic supplies much of our Fairtrade bananas, none of us had visited before.

The Dominican Republic occupies one half of the island of Hispaniola; the other half is Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians have crossed the porous border in search of a better life.

Jean Francoise and Ditapieu (Pictured)

Jean Francois (in red) and Ditapieu have been working undocumented in the Dominican Republic for 20 years. We saw them waiting in line to receive their identity card (carnet) which would legally recognise their presence and give them a year to get a Haitian passport. You could see how proud they felt to be stepping out of a shadow-world and into their own lives; real people with a name, soon to have their papers. They thought it was great. Before, the return journey to visit their families in Haiti cost between 3000-3500 pesos (USD $60-$80). Now it will be 500 pesos ($10) – a considerable saving for a worker earning $6 per day.

National Plan for the Regularisation of Workers

Nearly 300,000 people have applied to regularise their status since the process began in June 2014. Apparently about 90% of these applications have been accepted and passports or identity cards are in train. Vice Minister for Labour, Winston Santos, informed us that 67% of the total banana workforce are non-Dominicans, and about 74% of these Haitian banana workers had applied for regularisation. On plantations, 97% of Haitian workers have registered.

Marike De Pena, Director of Banelino Banana Cooperative and Chair of Fairtrade International, said:

“It has been extremely important for the producers and workers in the Dominican Republic to hear from the people in the banana markets and be able to show the good progress being made on regularising migrants’ work status. With the support of the Dominican Government, banana producers estimate that 74% of the workforce now count with a legal status.  We are aware that countries all over the world face problems related to migration, linked to poverty or even worse conflicts and wars, but this is all the more reason to be proud of our country's progress.”

The Dominican banana industry and Fairtrade

The Dominican Republic is the world’s second larger producer of Fairtrade bananas, earning producers an estimated US $10 million extra in 2014.

Founded by 30 ‘campesinos’ who acquired their farms through land reform, Banelino cooperative in the North-West has almost almost 300 smallholder members, a quarter women.

About 90% of production is sold as Fairtrade.

Banelino spends a significant proportion of its Fairtrade premium on health. A clinic at its offices in Mao carries out tests for HIV and other diseases, while a mobile clinic in the Montecristi region visits schools and churches. A team of 15 trained volunteers promote health and nutrition. The programmes care for 10,000 people a year.

Banelino spends a further 30% of the premium on education, including funding a special needs school with 86 children and 33 teachers.

Leena Camadoo, banana category manager at Fairtrade Foundation, UK, remarked:

“Banelino’s commitment to empowering not only themselves but others in their community is both inspiring and humbling.”

Plantations and banana workers

We saw how Fairtrade worked on several larger farms employing hundreds of workers. Fairtrade believes independent trade unions best represent workers on large farms. At the moment the FEDELAC trade union is only beginning to organise workers on plantations.

However, workers in premium and worker committees decide how to spend the extra money from Fairtrade. As with the smaller farmers, they often choose to spend this money on health and dental care. They have also built water tanks for droughts.

Some 20% of the Fairtrade premium can be used as a bonus payment and, on a couple of plantations we visited, this amounted to more than a month’s salary.

Roundtable with stakeholders

We met representatives of plantations, along with trade unions, the local Fairtrade producer organisation and other NGOs at a meeting – the first such round-table discussion.

Magdalena Streijjfert, General Secretary of the Association for Promoting Fairtrade in Sweden, described it as “historic.”

What Next?

We came across things that will stay with us for a long time ¬– and not just the heat. Like Banelino’s examples of how to spend the extra US$1 million a year; the impact of the 20% premium bonus on plantations; seeing Haitian and Dominican workers working together to spend the premium; the willingness of trade unions and employers to co-operate; the local Fairtrade organisation bringing everyone together; the small banana packing stations in the middle of nowhere where small farmers box off their bananas.

Mostly I’ll remember the long lines of Haitians collecting their registration papers. I came away thinking that people in the Dominican Republic are serious about sorting out their problems. We can help them by buying Fairtrade bananas, by supporting dialogue and inclusion – and by recognising the progress they are making.

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This is a shortened version of the original opinion piece. Read the full version on Fairtrade Ireland's new blog.

 
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