Iris Munguia

(WOMENSENEWS)–They work from 6:30 a.m. until 7 at night, their hands burning inside rubber gloves, helping to pack bananas destined for the United States and Europe, the two major export markets.

Some are as young as 14; almost all are under 40.

During the phases of the growing season when there is no fruit to pack, many struggle to get by in the informal economy of domestic work and street vending.

Most work in plants run by U.S. firms Chiquita Brands International, Dole Food Company and the Del Monte Corporation, which together control two-thirds of the world market in bananas.

These are the self-described "bananeras," or banana women, of Latin America. They number about 100,000, roughly one-quarter of the total banana-harvesting and packing work force in banana-exporting countries.

Many female packers are single mothers who have not finished primary school, says Ana Victoria Naranjo of ASEPROLA, the Association for Labor Services and Promotion, a group of college-educated allies throughout Central America with headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica, that provides technical and analytical support to some female packers, an estimated 35 percent of whom are illiterate.

Most female packers work in the non-union plants that dominate the industry, where workers can earn between $1 per day in Nicaragua to $10 per day in Colombia, according to Banana Link, a nonprofit in Norfolk, England, that campaigns for a fair and sustainable banana trade.

Non-union male packers earn three to four times more than their female counterparts, and in the field non-union male workers make twice what female field workers make, according to the Banana Link Web site.

But for those in the unionized work force of roughly 35,000–where wages can be around double those for non-unionized workers and benefits in the form of housing, electricity, medical care and education can equal or exceed the value of wages–a women’s movement has been underway since 1985.

Special Gender Training Session

And for the past couple of years–since 2004–that movement has been invigorated by a special women’s rights training session that has been spreading from women on one plantation and facility to another.

Called the Women, Labor and Leadership Training Curriculum, the training was created by Stitch, Women Organizing for Social Justice, a workers’ organization based in Washington, D.C., and Guatemala City, Guatemala. A labor training for women in Guatemala.

Founded in 1997 by U.S. female union leaders to help counterparts in the textile factories of Central America, Stitch later broadened its reach to women in the banana unions.

The training was devised by 12 Central American female activists to encourage women to take leadership roles in the union and to press for adequate maternity leave, prenatal care and freedom from sexual harassment in all contract negotiations, says Stitch Executive Director Beth Myers.

Stitch staff members have used the curriculum to train members of the Union of Izabal Banana Workers on a Del Monte subsidiary’s plantation in Izabal, Guatemala, who have in turn trained over 200 colleagues.

Honduran women at the Federation of Latin American Banana Unions and the Federation of Honduran Banana and Agricultural Unions also use the curriculum in regional trainings throughout their country.

Discussions and Role-Playing

The curriculum gets around illiteracy problems by depending mainly on discussion and role-playing, says Honduran labor organizer Iris Munguia.

"We do workshops on gender issues with groups of both men and women to raise awareness," Munguia says, speaking through a translator and via e-mail from Honduras this summer.

Robert Perillo of the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project told Women’s eNews from his office in Guatemala that while living costs in producer countries are lower than in banana-export markets, "wages do not approach what is needed to cover basic expenses for a family."

In Ecuador, for instance, he estimated that a family’s basic expenses would run around $205 a month for food and $374 for all necessary goods and services.

Executive compensation in the industry is on a different order of magnitude. Fernando Aguirre, CEO of Cincinnati-based Chiquita, for instance, received over $2.6 million in total compensation in 2005 and Richard G. Wolford, CEO of Del Monte, based in Westlake Village, Calif., has a current salary of $1.07 million.

Challenging Job Separation

In addition to influencing the gender element of negotiations, Stitch aims to nurture women’s self-esteem by showing them the financial value of their contribution to the household. The curriculum also challenges the assumption that women working outside the home will also carry the load of domestic work and the gender-based separation of jobs in the banana plantation.

In the packing plant, men and women do many of the same jobs: picking off dead flowers, cutting huge clumps into smaller bunches and washing the fruit. But only men move boxes into shipping containers and only women do the lowest-paying jobs, such as sticking on brand-name labels.

"We talk a lot about assigned gender roles and how that impacts women’s ability to earn a living," says Myers, "about women’s unpaid work at home and how gender as created by society plays into that."

So far, organizers say it is difficult to quantify the effects of the curriculum and progress has been incremental.

After taking the training session, one female organizer tried to add a provision into a labor contract to provide a nurse to conduct breast examinations for workers. After initially overcoming the objections of some male union leaders, the provision was later struck down.

But organizers of the Union of Workers of the Tela Railroad Company, based in La Lima, Honduras, have had better luck in the wake of their training sessions. They established a women’s committee and have formed subcommittees on approximately 25 Honduras plantations where they had union contracts.

Linda C. Wisniewski is a freelance writer in Bucks County, Pa. She wrote this story in memory of her mother, Lucille S. Ciulik, who was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

For more information:

STITCH: Women Organizing for Worker Justice:

Banana Link:

US/Labor Education in the Americas Project:

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