Health Risks for Women Banana Workers

Ana Victoria Naranjo

Although it is believed, in general, that men are the only ones who suffer health risks on the plantations, women banana workers are also very affected by situations that threaten their health, due to their responsibilities associated with banana production and to reproductive work.

In Costa Rica, banana production, as with any other type of work, has an assortment of problems related to people=s health. One of the most well-known problems stems from pesticides and agro-chemicals which are utilized to protect the fruit from diseases and pests. The use of these pesticides has caused damage to people=s health; among which the most harmful consequences are sterility and congenital malformations that are transmitted among those persons who have come into direct contact with these substances. For example, in 1997, 277 men and 28 women were reported for intoxication from pesticides in the province of Limon, which is located on the Costa Rican Caribbean coast, the most important banana region of the country.

This article will focus on the health risks of women banana workers, which occur while they carry out this economic activity. The most serious of them will be presented according to the women=s own perspective.

It is necessary to point out, as a general framework, that we have an integral concept of health, and do not only consider the concerns related to the need for protection against accidents. Health in the workplace should be complemented with the prevention of illnesses which, at the long term, can be contracted due to the tasks that are performed. Also, occupational health should be complemented with the constant promotion of integral health for both women and men workers. Experience with uncontrolled use of pesticides is a warning that the problem is not accidental or by chance, but rather, one which requires strategic or long-range attention.


Work and risks

While the women are in the banana plantation, the work they carry out is concentrated in the different tasks at the packing plant. Among the most important activities are the Adesmane@(cutting of the fruit into small bunches) and the washing and selection of the fruit, as well as the application of substances for its preservation and the packing itself. Each one of these work areas has associated health risks. Also, while in their homes, the women are responsible for washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning, in addition to taking care of the elderly or children; women banana workers are overloaded with their daily tasks and consequently, the risks on their health are increased.

For this reason, specifically in the case of women banana workers, health problems are particularly complex and are not limited to the tasks they carry out in the packing plant or to other work directly related to banana production. Rather, women banana workers, as the majority of women in the world, carry out a double workload, which they carry out in part before entering the plantation and, after leaving it, every day, but especially during the weekends. This work, known as reproductive work, does not only benefit their family but society in general. Nonetheless, it also generates damage to their health and in this sense, should be taken into account.

Recently, organized groups of women banana workers in Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, through participative workshops that were held between 1998 and 1999, have begun to identify a series of risks that affect them. This identification is one of the first steps they have taken to convert themselves into protagonists of their own health. Below, as follows, are some of the results that were analyzed in the workshop.


Participatory identification and acknowledgement of risk factors.

The majority of women hired by banana companies, as was already mentioned above, work in the section of selection and packing of the fruit for exportation. Centered in the packing plant, the women identified some of the most common risks that they face. This identification was made, after having received basic training on the international classification of risk factors which was provided by the Association of Services for Labor Promotion (ASEPROLA) in participatory workshops that were held during 1998 and 1999.

The women banana workers consider the most important risk factors, in relation to the damage caused to their health, to be: ergonomic, chemical, biological, psychological, and social risks as well as risks due to the mode of organization of work and risks stemming from the double workload.


Ergonomic Risks

The ergonomic risks and risks due to the mode of organization are, in the first place, the risks derived from the women=s physical position during the work process. Generally, the women are standing up in all of the work stations that they occupy in the packing plant and this, with time, produces varicose veins and physical exhaustion. Also, the risks due to the mode of organization of work means that the women do not always have the possibility of stable work, with a specific weekly work schedule. The women=s work in the packing plants depends upon whether or not there is fruit and they themselves have to pick up the costs of only a three or four-day week. The repetitivity and the rutinary work of selection, stickering and packing were detected, in themselves, as risk factors of this group.


Chemical Risks

Another type of risk factor in this work area are the chemical risks. These are due to contact with residuals of pesticides on the fruits at the beginning of the packing process. As well, the women also must apply, by spraying, chemical components to preserve the fruit over time. This smoke and vapors cause skin allergies and respiratory problems.


Biological Risks

The biological risks stem from the constant dampness experienced by women in the packing plant while working around the huge tanks in which the bananas are floated. Here, the women run the constant risk of getting fungal infections, which fundamentally affects the nails of their hands and feet. Other biological risks that were detected by the women workers are the insect bites they receive at the beginning of the process, when the fruit comes in from the farm.


Psychological Risks

Psychological risks, especially during the selection phase, are caused by the plants= foreman=s poor treatment and excessive control of the workers; he keeps constant watch and insults the women workers while they select the fruit.


Social Risks

Social risks are tied to the type and low quality of salary that the women workers receive. Also, recently in Costa Rica, the gradual and systematic elimination of the social salary has begun to be included into this type of risk; social salary contemplates aspects which are very important, like housing, water, electricity, scholarships for study and transportation, among others. Another risk associated to this category is the small amount of mass training on prevention and integral health received by the women workers.


Risks caused by the double workload

At home, women are also faced with risks attributable to their different positions and responsibilities when carrying out tasks such as washing, ironing, cooking, handling instruments such as knives, fire and stoves. It is obvious that physical exhaustion can be transformed into the risk of premature aging and stress.


Protagonists of their own health

To be protagonists of their own health implies that the women take possession, in the most positive sense, of the information and the capacities needed to orient the companies= and the State=s occupational health labor policies. These policies should be oriented in favor of the interests of the women workers, with the aim to improve their quality of life and consequently, the level of life of their families. At this moment in time, this means establishing a set of elements, such as:

A. An understanding of health in an integral manner and knowledge of the damage that risks cause; these can be caused by accidents and occupational illnesses at the long range, and can be produced from productive labor as well as from reproductive work that the women perform.

B. Sufficient importance given and access to information and training for prevention.

C. Participation and collective decision-making in the construction of alternative solutions to the risks which have been identified. In this sense, it is necessary to take advantage of the opportunities for negotiation with the Company and to use these spaces adequately.

D. Maintenance of a constant preventive attitude.

While women workers actively participate in groups and spaces for negotiation around the topic of occupational health in the Company, they take possession of the norms, mechanisms and criterion for protection and prevention of their own health. In this way, they make themselves protagonists of their own health.