In My Opinion

Dita De Boni is a Herald business columnist

Dita De Boni: When ethics go bananas

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If life is challenging for shoppers, it's much tougher for third-world workers

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

The mind boggles as to why New Zealanders eat more bananas than almost any other nation, but it's right there in black and white in a recently released report, called - take a deep breath - The Labour and Environmental Situation in Philippine Banana Plantations Exporting to New Zealand.

Within its 98 pages is the stunning fact that Kiwis eat around 18kg of bananas per person per year. The next most enthusiastic banana-munchers, the Japanese, are way behind, at just 12kg a year.

Celebrity chefs and Pacific Islanders do the most ingenious things with this fruit, but everyone else I have ever seen eating bananas either chops them up on cereal or blends them into smoothies. They also get smushed for babies up and down the land, and for banana cakes - a real "ladies, a plate" staple.

New Zealand imports 250,000 cases of the fruit each year, and even more mind-blasting than the sheer volume of banana skins that represents, is the fact that these bananas are sometimes grown under shockingly exploitative conditions, if the Oxfam-commissioned The Labour and Environmental Situation ...

is to be believed. That's despite many being sold as an "ethical" option.

It's a relief that fruit company Dole has withdrawn its "ethical choice" sticker, because it gave banana consumers like myself the impression that, at the least, growers were being properly paid, banana-growing land was not being degraded by chemical overuse, and children were not de-leafing banana plants from sun-up to sun-down.

We now know that, even if only part of the report is true, it's a grim situation for many of the 20,000 or so rank and file employees, contractors and middlemen producing bananas for Kiwis - and quite a way from "ethical", however you define it.

We now know that there is some military harassment of the workforce. That some highly toxic chemicals are handled in the most primitive fashion by workers, causing illness and environmental damage. And that children are routinely hired on many plantations.

We also learn from the report that on some sites the pay is so low that many workers pawn their ATM cards en masse to lenders, who withdraw a proportion of the worker's measly salary every payday as well as substantial interest payments, creating a cycle of semi-permanent indebtedness.

By contrast, in 2011, Dole Philippines (pineapple and banana divisions) registered a gross income of US$609 million.

For its part, Dole has promised to investigate and clean up any problems it finds, while also challenging the accuracy of parts of the Oxfam report.

Naturally, the most hard-done-by people in all this are the impoverished Philippine banana plantation workers, who have to endure the conditions outlined above.

But also spare a thought for the ethical consumer, which more and more of us are striving to be, according to surveys.

No matter how many free-range eggs, forest-friendly paper products and biodegradable nappies we stuff into our organic jute shopping bags, there will always be some fresh horror to discover about another product on the shopping list.

Are we to stop buying bananas altogether, because, sticker or no sticker, we now know that they are produced in worrisome conditions? Clothing is the same; some meat production ... the list is endless.

At least we are able to exert a bit of consumer power against companies and brands that mis-market themselves as ethical.

I'm not sure, though, that all the banana boycotts in the world will make things any better for the man, woman or child at the bottom of the food chain in the backblocks of the Philippines.

- NZ Herald

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