09/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This Injustice Is Bananas

The flagmen on Ecuador's banana plantations have one of the worst jobs.

Their task is nothing short of dangerous. "Uniforms" consist of jeans and t-shirts. Then, they make their way to the fields and guide the crop-spraying planes to the correct spot.

In an effort to bring North America the perfect banana, these workers risk cancer, disease and sterility. According to Banana Link, an organization that campaigns for fairness in the banana trade, each knows they could face "a slow death."

On these large plantations, workers endure stifling, tropical heat through twelve-hour days with forced and unpaid overtime. Accidents are commonplace. So is sexual harassment.

Speaking out could mean losing your job and its paltry $3 per hour average wage.

The banana is one of North America's favorite fruits. We consume millions of tonnes of the tropical treat every year. Rarely do we wonder how the item gets to our cold, northern climate or how we can make things better for those who pick them.

The Cavendish variety of banana -- a lunchbox staple -- begins its journey in Latin America. There, bananas grow on large plantations employing hundreds of workers. Four companies control the majority of these farms and their exports.

They are constantly looking to lower production costs.

Facing violence in the 1990s, union leaders fought for higher wages and benefits. They were able to make some gains although they appear sporadically throughout the region. Some places, like Honduras, have wages as high as $10 per hour. Others, like Ecuador, have seen very few improvements.

Violence still exists but the new threat is a "race to the bottom," according to Stephen Coats, executive director of the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Projects. He likens the phenomenon to jobs relocating to Mexico post-NAFTA.

"With globalization, we (in North America) have talked about losing high-wage jobs to Mexico. It's a similar phenomenon in Latin America," he explains. For producers to reduce their costs, they move to plantations with the lowest wages. That pits Latin American countries and individual plantations against each other. "It's not just a North-South thing. It can happen within a region or even a country."

Coats estimates unionization has fallen 10 to 15 per cent in the last decade as production companies attempt to reduce their costs. As well, according to Banana Link, the number of female workers has decreased partly because they are perceived as "high cost, high risk" when it comes to possible maternity benefits.

While the difference between $3 and $10 per hour for the worker is extreme, often the price difference at our check-out is negligible. Labor represents a small proportion of banana production costs compared to transportation.

Plus, with a rise in large supermarket chains in the 1990s, the retailers' buying power gave them the ability to set the price. Supermarkets buy in bulk from one company pitting the four major producers against each other, further driving the race to the bottom at the individual plantations.

As supermarkets drive producers to lower their costs and producers drive plantations towards lower wages, the consumer plays a big role in stopping this race from hurting the workers. By demanding bananas produced under fair conditions, supermarkets will be pressured to supply them.

Through demand, consumers can affect every step of this cycle.

"If supermarket managers know that consumers do have a concern, they will be more open to initiatives that establish minimum standards and put fair practices in place," says Coats.

Cutting bananas from our diets is helping no one. Most likely they will remain one of our favorite fruits. But, those selecting fairer options can improve working conditions while slicing that fruit into their morning cereal.

We can each speak through our choices -- even if that choice is putting a fairer banana in our lunchbox.