An Oxfam global campaign calling on supermarkets around the world to address the unfair treatment of farmers, workers and producers in their commodity supply chains recently exposed the plight of banana plantation workers in the Philippines.
Oxfam, in its new global campaign report called “Ripe for Change,” revealed how banana farmers suffer from being “food insecure” and “locked into grossly unfair contracts” with large banana traders and multinational companies.
Oxfam and its partners conducted surveys in 2017 of 459 small-scale farmers and workers in supermarket supply chains across five countries – Philippines, Italy, Pakistan, South Africa, and Thailand – using the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale (HFIAS) method.
In a joint statement, Oxfam and Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternatie Legal Service, Inc. (IDEALS Inc.) said in the case of the Philippines, most of these farmers are agrarian reform beneficiaries who opted to enter into agribusiness ventures agreement (AVA), a scheme under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) criticized for failing to improve the economic condition of small farmers.
The Duterte administration, through the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), is currently reviewing hundreds of AVAs. The DAR, through Undersecretary Luis Pangulayan, head of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) Secretariat, has also submitted a draft Executive Order (E.O.) to Malacanang seeking to empower the PARC Executive Committee (ExCom) to resolve issues concerning “problematic” AVAs which left agrarian reform beneficiaries at the losing end of the deals.
The Oxfam report said banana farmers and their family had gone without enough food in the previous month.
Oxfam’s food insecurity survey with women and men farmers, harvesting workers and packers in Compostela and Mawab municipalities found that 75 percent of those surveyed were classified as food insecure, 38 percent of whom as severely food insecure. The report states that 72 percent of women small-scale banana farmers surveyed in the Philippines said they worried about feeding their family in the previous month.
The report also looked in detail at working conditions of banana farmers in Mindanao who have signed “onerous” or “unfair” AVAs with large trading companies as part of a lease agreement, ‘growership’ arrangement, or joint venture contract.
These findings were based on research from IDEALS, Inc., a local non-profit that works closely with banana farmers to push for reforms in the agribusiness sector.
The Ripe for Change’ report reveals how powerful banana trading companies, such as Sumifru Philippines and Standard Fruit Corp., have locked farmers in Mindanao province into grossly unfair contracts, resulting in poverty and hunger for banana farmers and their families. Representatives of banana buying companies “lured” farmers with the promise of a signing bonus; while contracts contained opaque legal provisions that – in the absence of any legal representation or support – farmers couldn’t adequately understand.
Among its findings, a typical AVA contract:
- Allows buyers to impose a set price for bananas, regardless of production costs or prevailing market rates.
- Set restrictions on property rights that prevent farmers from planting alternative crops for additional sources of income.
- Does not provide remedies and mechanisms for farmers in the event of contract abuse.
- Resulted in farmers incurring high levels of debt, meaning that they are, in practice, unable to leave the contract without severe penalties.
The report also highlighted that these “exploitative” deals affect women and men differently because of prevailing social norms. The experiences of IDEALS Inc. and Oxfam in the region suggest that these new levels of indebtedness and poverty mean that women struggle disproportionately to cover the costs of feeding their families and buying basic household items.
“Having worked closely with banana smallholder farmers in Mindanao, we’ve found that prejudicial agribusiness venture agreements aren’t the only problems they’re facing,” said IDEALS Inc. Legal Officer Victoria Caranay.
“We’ve seen first-hand the farmers’ brutal working conditions as they try to meet strict quotas from large traders and multinational companies, exposure to crop spraying and toxic pesticides, and the knock-on effect of adding disproportionate burdens on women. Since formal loans are usually signed by men, the eventual liabilities are shared with women in the household, who are barely consulted, if not at all, on financial matters, contracts, and payment conditions,” Caranay said.
“The private sector has the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty where, as a start, farmers and food workers should be paid a fair price for their produce and be enabled to negotiate their contracts from a position of strength,” said Dante Dalabajan, Oxfam in the Philippines Senior Manager.
“The unfair contracts have brought added hardships on women who are forced to work long hours in banana plantations with minimal pay to cut down on production costs. Women have also had to take on support roles in farmers’ co-ops without pay or social protection, aside from child-rearing and household work, which allows them less time to look for extra income to feed themselves and their families, and pay for basic necessities,” added Dalabajan.
The online #BehindTheBarcodes petition urging supermarkets and governments to crack down on inhumane working conditions, increase transparency about where our food comes from, tackle discrimination against women, and ensure a larger share of what consumers spend on food reaches the people who produce it can be signed at http://www.behindthebarcodes.org.