‘Brutal treatment’ of PH banana farmers featured in global campaign to stop inequality in supermarket supply chains

Monday, July 2, 2018
A worker carries a bunch of Cavendish bananas on a plantation in the Philippines. Bunches often weigh over 40 kilograms. (Photo: Keith Bacongco/Oxfam)

Quezon City; July 1, 2018 – The plight of Philippine banana farmers is featured in ‘Behind the Barcodes’, an Oxfam global campaign calling on supermarkets around the world to address the unfair treatment of farmers, workers, and producers in their food supply chains.

Oxfam’s new global campaign report, ‘Ripe for Change’, found that banana farmers in the Philippines are ‘food insecure’, meaning that they or a family member had gone without enough food in the previous month, and are ‘locked into grossly unfair contracts’ with large banana traders and multinational companies.

The report relies on surveys conducted by Oxfam and partners in 2017 across hundreds of small-scale farmers and workers in supermarket supply chains across five countries – including the Philippines – using the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale (HFIAS) method. Oxfam’s food insecurity survey with women and men farmers, harvesting workers and packers in Compostela and Mawab municipalities found that 75% of those surveyed were classified as food insecure, 38% of whom as severely food insecure. The report states that 72% 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’ agribusiness venture agreements (AVAs) with large trading companies as part of a lease agreement, ‘growership’ arrangement, or joint venture contract. These findings were based on research from Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Service, Inc. (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 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 childrearing 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.

Notes to editors: 

Oxfam and 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. Read Oxfam’s report for full findings, Ripe for Change: Ending Human Suffering in Supermarket Supply Chains and the Ripe for Change: methodology note.

The case study Land: Debt, poverty and human suffering in the Philippine banana trade, written by Oxfam in the Philippines’ Dante Dalabajan and Anna Kristina Dinglasan, is part of a series of papers and reports written to inform public debate on development and humanitarian policy issues. Since 2013, Oxfam has been supporting the work of IDEALS Inc. to study the AVAs between five farmer cooperatives and large traders or multinational companies (MNCs) in areas affected by Typhoon Bopha.

Contact information: 

April Bulanadi |Senior Officer for Media and Digital Influencing | Oxfam in the Philippines
Mobile: 09062822562 | Email: ABulanadi@oxfam.org.uk

Darlene Cay | Media Officer | IDEALS
Mobile: 09164409702 | Email: darlenecay@gmail.com